For a movie built around questions of failed ethics and duplicitous behavior, Street Kings is just as dishonest as its characters. Though conceived as yet another sobering frontline report on law enforcement’s ever-expanding gray area, director David Ayer’s grim police thriller mostly plays as one long dick-measuring competition. You sense that an infinitely more complex drama exists within the film’s grasp, but no one bothered to stop guzzling the testosterone long enough to find it.
Ayer’s résumé only magnifies that disappointment. A screenwriter with credits on mega-macho pictures like S.W.A.T. and The Fast and the Furious, he also gave Denzel Washington his second Oscar with his Training Day script, a subtler look at male-power relationships. And with his directorial debut, 2006’s Harsh Times—an underrated buddy drama about an unstable Iraq vet and his disreputable best friend—he further demonstrated a faculty for pinpointing the economic hardships and emotional impotence that spur guy’s-guy bravado while simultaneously skewering its dead-end path.
Unfortunately, such analysis takes a backseat in Street Kings, and all we’re left with is the bravado—that and Keanu Reeves, who plays Los Angeles detective Tom Ludlow, an ethically slippery lawman reeling from his wife’s death. (We know that he’s an alcoholic because he repeatedly chugs mini-bottles of whisky, and that he’s emotionally frozen because he looks like Keanu Reeves.)
Though worried that his former partner, Detective Terrence Washington (Terry Crews), might be ratting him out to Internal Affairs for his past indiscretions, Ludlow knows that he’s protected by his powerful boss in Administrative Vice, Captain Wander (Forest Whitaker), who dotes on his team of hard-asses like a proud papa. But when Washington is gunned down in a seemingly random liquor-store holdup, Ludlow pushes to find his ex-partner’s killers, despite Wander’s warnings not to get involved.
From the setup, Street Kings is most certainly going to be a Chinatown-like mystery in which the flawed hero’s quest will uncover layer upon layer of treachery within respected civic institutions while saving his soul in the process. But rather than using that framework for a larger exploration of, well, anything, the movie leans hard on the furled-brow banality of its message. The B-movie screenplay—credited to crime master James Ellroy, Ultraviolet auteur Kurt Wimmer, and newcomer Jamie Moss—approaches its cautionary tale with an arsenal of dull tough-guy dialogue, as the male characters take turns mowing down each other’s masculinity when they’re not delivering hard-boiled pseudo-knowledge about the nature of evil. (“Bad breeds bad” and “Blood doesn’t wash away blood” are but two of the script’s bon mots ready-made for a bumper sticker on your favorite nihilist’s car.)
For years, the hip-hop community has been criticized for its glorification of Scarface-style antiheroes, idolizing criminal behavior and its illicit rewards without focusing on the usually violent ends. But a film like Street Kings offers the flipside fantasy that’s equally corrosive: the notion of the one righteous dude who gets his hands dirty operating outside the law in the name of justice. It’s a myth that reaches as far back as Dirty Harry, and edgy contemporary TV dramas like The Shield at least question the morality of such a stance. But while Street Kings pines for a gritty realism and a corresponding wised-up attitude about the thin line between cops and robbers, it’s hopelessly quaint at its core. The movie kicks your ass and takes your name because it doesn’t know what else to do.