HOLLYWOOD — The cliches and laughably hammy dialogue are scattered about just as liberally as the spent bullet casings in “Street Kings,” an ultraviolent but tired bad-cop yarn — and that’s surprising and disappointing given that it comes from a story by “L.A. Confidential” writer James Ellroy, who also co-wrote the script.
Director David Ayer pretty much remakes “Training Day,” which he also wrote, complete with a rogue Los Angeles police detective (Keanu Reeves), an idealistic sidekick (Chris Evans) and cameos from various rappers (Common and The Game in place of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg).
Reeves stars as Tom Ludlow, who has long carried out dirty deeds for his dirty boss, Capt. Jack Wander (Forest Whitaker, eyes bulging and channeling Idi Amin once more). This is a guy who shoots first and then never even bothers to ask questions later, and his captain has always been there to back him up.
Ludlow slugs vodka nips to make his way through each day; it’s how he copes with his wife’s death (though Reeves is so typically low-key, you’d never know his character is supposed to be drunk the whole time). But when he’s implicated in the murder of his former partner Washington (Terry Crews), a do-gooder who’d been snitching to internal affairs, he must do some investigating of his own to defend himself. (Washington is obliterated by a couple of machine gun-toting gangsters in the aisles of a convenience store; far-fetched manipulation of DNA samples will later come into play.)
Ludlow seeks out Paul Diskant (Evans, from the “Fantastic Four” movies), a young homicide detective who’s been assigned to the case, in hopes of determining what evidence there is against him. Instead what ends up happening is, Ludlow drags Diskant over to the dark side of the thin blue line, schlepping the kid all over the city to watch as he whacks suspects about the head with a phone book, for example, to extract information from them. (The Game is believably thuggish in this scene as a San Pedro gang member.)
Nevertheless, Diskant still has somewhat of a grasp on the difference between right and wrong, prompting this unintentionally hilarious exchange:
Ludlow: “This thing that you want, that you think you want, you don’t want it.”
Diskant: “You don’t know what I want!”
That’s just one example in the script Ellroy co-wrote with Kurt Wimmer and Jamie Moss. When Ludlow gets too close to the truth, Wander urges him, “It’s time to turn the page and close the book.” And Hugh Laurie, the engaging star of TV’s “House” who’s woefully misused here as the sneaky internal affairs captain, warns Ludlow, “You can’t ride the tiger forever.”
What does that even mean?
Also among the supporting cast are the overacting Jay Mohr as a sergeant in a porn mustache and Martha Higareda as Ludlow’s stereotypically saucy but long-suffering Hispanic girlfriend. (“Why can’t you have a normal life like everyone else?” she pleads.) Cedric the Entertainer does gets a couple of amusing moments, though, playing against type as a drug dealer named Scribble.
Despite the enormity of the ensemble, this is Reeves’ film; everything revolves around him, for better and for worse. As he grows older, it’s easier to accept him playing haggard, seen-it-all characters, as he also did in 2005’s “Constantine.”
But there’s still something too boyish and lightweight about him to make us deeply feel his torment — he’s not quite a street king, he’s more like a prince.
“Street Kings,” a Fox Searchlight Pictures release, is rated R for strong violence and pervasive language. Running time: 107 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.