We know Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves) is a late-stage alcoholic when he wakes up, he takes one of many pulls on airline bottles of vodka. Apparently, drinking only improves his marksmanship. When he enters a suspicious house across town, he blows a half-dozen swarthy gents in the general direction of Smithereens. He catches a couple men in the back. Others' brains splatter the walls in homage to Jackson Pollock's red period. After planting evidence on one of the deceased, Ludlow finds a cramped wall recess, with two girls trussed up and cowering inside. They stare up at him trembling, wondering what's he got in mind. "It's OK," he whispers. "I'm a cop."
Ludlow is the good guy in the gaudy police procedural Street Kings. The only one. "You went toe-to-toe with evil and you won," Tom's superior, Capt. Jack Wander (Forest Whitaker) tells him proudly. "Gimme a hug." Ludlow is the star of Wander's Vice unit, which uses all exigent means, like a fist to the face and bullet in the back, to keep the better organized sexual predators in tow. "You are the tip of the spear," Wander says to Tom. "Who else'll keep back the animals?"
Street Kings (an oddly static and generic title for a movie that seethes with deranged energy) comes from Southern California's dark romancer of violent cops, James Ellroy or, as he calls himself, the "king of American crime fiction." Unlike L.A. Confidential and Black Dahlia, this movie isn't based on an Ellroy novel. It comes from an original script of Ellroy's that two lesser scribes worked over. But under David Ayer's direction it's still got Ellroy's arrhythmic pulse, careering from one high-caliber confrontation to another. The movie is in love with the boys who bleed blue, even as it obsessively details their habit of making others spill crimson. Street Kings lives in the narrow cracks between dedication and derangement, accommodation and corruption, and leaves it to audiences to figure out where their rooting interest lies.
Back in the '70s, the director Robert Aldrich outlined distinctions between New York and L.A. police. In the Big Apple, he said, the cops are basically in it for the money, knowing that bribes and kickbacks will put their kids through college. L.A. cops, Aldrich said, are honest, crusading and sadistic: they get their charge from pulverizing the ones they tab as bad. Ludlow, who has a Patton-size flag outside his home and whom another cop calls "L.A.'s deadliest white boy," fits into this latter category. "We're the police," he tells a greener officer (Chris Evans) who partners with him. "We can do whatever the hell we want." And, later: "Truth doesn't matter, only how we write it up."
But truth, or at least personal revelation, does matter to Ludlow. An ex-partner of his has been killed in a bodega massacre that implicates Tom, and damned if he won't find out whodunit. This will involve getting info on the perps by grilling hood denizens (including Cedric "the Entertainer" Kyles in a fun turn), tangling with a skeptical Internal Affairs Captain (Hugh Laurie, essentially playing House on the streets) and leaving enough corpses in his wake to make the City of Angels seem like Baghdad-on-the-Pacific. It's L.A.P.D.-lirious.
There's a rule about heroes in cop action melodramas: when they're young, they're single; when they age a little, they go directly from husband to widower. Ludlow can't cleanse himself of his wife's untimely death. And like any caring, bereft husband, Ludlow wants a DNA swab from her vagina, so he can find and severely hurt the guy she was having sex with when she died. It's these sensitive little subplots that build heart into the machine of the narrative.
That machine keeps pumping vigorously right up to the climax, when the movie goes haywire with some pirouetting twists of character, after which the ultimate villain is handed an endless aria about why venality is the only efficacious way to do business. "What happened to just locking up the bad people?" asks Ludlow plaintively, only to be told, "We're all bad, Tom."
Yeah, well not Tom. He may be a morose drunk with an on-the-job vicious streak, but Reeves' presence assures that he holds our sympathy and, more important, never surrenders our interest. In action films from The Matrix through Constantine (not so much in the romantic films he's fronted), Reeves has a star quality that's perfectly distilled, in part because it's almost impossible to explain. But I'll try.
Reeves knows the secret to being an action star: it's to somehow make people watch you when your body's at rest. Studying this actor doing nothing is a rewarding experience. It's not that he suggests reservoirs of cogitation and calculation behind his eyes; he's too stolid, monolithic, slab-like for that. Reeves, on-screen, is not a thinking animal, but he's a strong, wounded, wary one. You feel both fascinated and apprehensive, guessing with good reason that he's about to claw, bite or maul some other creature in his way. Armed or not, Reeves is the weapon that can go off at any time.
That's why Street Kings, though it isn't a great movie, is a pretty damn cool Keanu Reeves movie, one that on the Reevesian action scale measures somewhere between "Whoa" and "Wow."