Viewed from the oft-used gun sites of protagonist Det. Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves), the new David Ayer directorial effort Street Kings probably looks like a turgid bungle, a lame, cock-eyed potboiler best ended quickly with a slug through the heart, lest it do any harm to innocent moviegoers. After all, Ayer's writing credits include the definitively turgid Training Day, not to mention S.W.A.T. and (ugh!) The Fast and the Furious; and his only other effort in the director's seat was 2006's messy Christian Bale vehicle Harsh Times. Throw in crime novelist James Ellroy as co-writer—a genre scribe whose film work is only as good as the directorial hand that guides it—and you have a veritable recipe for violent, over-amped schlock.
And Street Kings is turgid, make no mistake, but its melodrama is mostly forgivable, coming as it does in service of a who's-doing-who, police-corruption suspense actioner that keeps us either flinching or guessing often enough that we (mostly) overlook the silly parts. This is genre fiction through and through, and though it lacks the noir-ish overtones and historical remove that seemed to leaven the overkill in Ellroy's L.A. Confidential story, it still thrives on a certain level of grit-on-its-sleeve chutzpah, like Raymond Chandler wholly re-imagined for a modern urban milieu.
The aforementioned Tom Ludlow is a shoot-first juggernaut of a Los Angeles police detective, an impossibly tough veteran cop who's not afraid to play it fast and loose with both means and ends. His take-no-prisoners approach has proven brutally effective through the years—in the opening minutes of the film, he earns "hero cop" status by shooting up a house full of kidnappers, then altering the crime scene to make it appear they shot first—and he's been largely insulated from repercussion by his well-connected department head, the shrewd and manipulative Capt. Jack Wander (Forest Whitaker).
But suddenly Tom is thrust into a situation that threatens to unearth some of his long-buried scruples. When his estranged former partner (Terry Crews) dies in a bloody shooting, the evidence makes Tom look like an adjunct to the crime, if not an outright co-conspirator. It's an easy cover-up job—some altered ballistics, a misplaced store video—for Wander and his team. But Tom is troubled by the attendant necessity of letting his former friend's death go unavenged: in this case, catching the bad guys inevitably means losing his career, and maybe his freedom as well.
It's a sentiment rarely expressed in the history of film critique, but let it be said that Reeves' performance is the powerful center that holds Street Kings together, mostly through a few leaps of logic and all of the cliched "bad guys, dirty cops" tough-guy talk. Often accused of sleepwalking through most of his performances, the Reeves we see here is a legitimately dark, brooding presence, a kinetic hard case with an authentic scowl who makes us believe he would just as soon shoot the suspects as take them in for questioning.
The rest of the cast is strong, too; Whitaker is money in the bank, as usual, though his portrayal of Capt. Wander is distractingly marred by a little too much post-exclamatory spittle. Good, too, are Tom's fellow detectives, played by the likes of Jay Mohr, John Corbett, and Chris Evans (aka the Human Torch, of Fantastic Four fame), as are some of the perps who fall victim to his heavy-handed tactics, including Cedric the Entertainer as a roly-poly heroin dealer named Scribble, and rappers Common and The Game.
What's less strong is the chain of sometimes-preposterous circumstances that lead to the film's twisted, only half-anticipated conclusion. How did Tom so fortuitously happen upon the events of Washington's death? How can even a plugged-in police captain like Wander tidy up the impossibly messy details of one of Tom's trademark bloodbaths? And never mind the questions raised by the concluding revelations; best leave those to viewers already proven stalwart enough to swallow the rest of the film.
But again, Street Kings is crime-genre fiction of the saltiest kind, set in the sort of paranoiac and morally ambiguous reality that is peculiar to Ellroy's work. Appreciating its like requires a mindset not unlike Tom Ludlow's. Don't ask too many questions; just wait for the shooting to start.