Bright Lights Film Journal

Critics Cornered: On Reviewers’ Reactions to David Ayres’ Street Kings

“Anyone who speaks unsanitized thought is going to lose.”

I suppose every critic faces it — leaving a theatre after a positive experience and seeing the object of his affection stoned mercilessly by a raging mob of reviewers.

Street Kings has been pummeled into pulp until it’s almost unrecognizable. I rush to its corner.

It’s an odd situation for me. I’m usually the one pelting the reviewers’ bandwagon that’s blaring praise for a misbegotten, beloved movie. About Schmidt, The Squid and the Whale, and most Julianne Moore movies come to mind.

Now I’m defending a movie against voluminous scourging. I’ve never questioned my critical negations, but when I affirm a movie that the vast majority of reviewers savage, I’m a bit uneasy.

But if a critic’s driven down the mean streets of criticism, he’s driven.

The reviews of Street Kings are bad. Really bad. Even Yosemite Sam Shalit pounded it on TV. Richard Roeper — Mr. PC of reviewers — was insulted by Street Kings and thought it unclean.

At least I was spared being lumped in with a toxic association. The Gang for Ludicrous Quotes in the Ads isn’t bleating their support for Street Kings. Somehow the film didn’t even get them.

The fatuous Pete Hammond wasn’t quoted. Nor were fellow twits Shawn Edwards, Earl Dittmann, and Rex Reed — who seems to be making a giddy comeback in his dotage. Fortunately, I avoided connection with that venal cadre.

Although I’m never quoted in ads, it would have been really depressing to see them vulturing on a movie I liked.

So here goes TM for the defense:

I didn’t know anything about Street Kings when I saw it, except it was a crime movie with Keanu Reeves. When I saw writer James Ellroy’s name in the end credits, something clicked.

Street Kings is adapted from a story by Ellroy, who wrote the novel that spawned the classic L.A. Confidential, which won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1997.

With Street Kings I had seen an updated version of L.A. Confidential. Ellroy’s themes were palpable. Ellroy is a clumsy stylist, but his vision of law and disorder is perceptive and penetrating. Both Street Kings and L.A. Confidential are steeped in police corruption, galvanic violence, two odd-fellow cops who partner up, and the manic twists of fate and human nature.

Like L.A. Confidential, Street Kings reeks with intrigue and betrayal. Street Kings is no L.A. Confidential, but it’s a bastard brother.

Street Kings is the story of Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves), a lone-wolf cop who takes justice into his bloody hands. He’s a member of an elite squad, but he’s their most effective member; he gets the bloodiest job done no matter what barriers he has to destroy.

Ludlow is damaged and vulnerable — because of the violence on his job and in his personal life. His wife died, and he drinks miniatures of vodka to blur him. In the opening scene, Ludlow wakes up, throws up, and goes out to spew racial insults and deluges of bullets. He is a very dark knight.

Because Ludlow crudely breaks the rules, his former partner African-American Terrence Washington (Terry Crews) appears to have reported him to Internal Affairs. When Washington is slain, in his proximity, Ludlow is incriminated and has to fend for himself against the forces of violence.

Tom Ludlow, struggling anti-hero, sometimes racist and drunken, aspires to fight the good fight against seemingly overwhelming odds.

The following are some of the brickbats that reviewers have grenaded at Street Kings.

1. Reviewers en masse criticize the acting, and say Reeves is miscast or worse.

Keanu Reeves makes one of the easiest targets in Hollywood. Few actors have taken the unrelenting, reflexive, critical battering that Reeves has over his career. It’s patented for reviewers to go back and repeat their assessments. Again, in Street Kings Reeves is treated like the adventurous Ted Logan.

But as Tom Ludlow, Reeves has put on weight, and his performance now has more heft. As the warped straight-arrow, he exhibits more vitality than Guy Pearce, the straight arrow in L.A. Confidential. It may be sacrilege to say Clint wasn’t exactly a study in animation as Dirty Harry. Reeves is more solid than stolid.

Many of the other actors contribute positively to Street Kings. Forest Whittaker is strong as Jack Wander, Ludlow’s boss and father figure.

Cedric the Entertainer entertains, and the actresses are capable. Noamie Harris plays Washington’s wife, and Martha Higareda is Ludlow’s loyal girlfriend.

Perhaps the performance most open to question is Hugh Laurie’s as Capt. James Briggs of Internal Affairs. His performance seems closer to the father in Stuart Little than to Gregory House. We expect more edge to Laurie, but his role is fairly bland. And mustachioed Jay Mohr doesn’t do much for the credibiltity. But Chris Evans is credible as the cop who partners with Ludlow.

All in all, that’s a pretty formidable cast.

2. Many reviewers guffaw at the dialogue in Street Kings.

A young critic I know hates Street Kings and thinks the dialogue is hammy, but he gave the eloquent Cloverfield three stars.

People seem to forget that some of the dialogue in L.A. Confidential — especially between Bud White (Russell Crowe) and Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger) — was ripe.

One of the potential liabilities of the screenplay is that it is credited to three writers — Ellroy, veteran Kurt Wimmer, and Jamie Moss. But Ellroy’s tone seems to survive. His dialogue is blunt — his cops speak dated argot — but his language does pack a punch.

Director David Ayres, like Curtis Hanson before him, seems aware of the rhythms of Ellroy’s language. Ironically, both Ayres and Hanson are literary men. Hanson was a film critic before co-scripting (with Brian Helgeland) and directing L.A. Confidential. Ayres wrote the screenplays for Training Day (2001) and the underrated Dark Blue (2003), another Ellroy work, directed by Rod Shelton.

The screenplay for Street Kings does have lapses. When Ludlow gives Linda Washington a disk with the brutal murder of her husband on it, this seems irrational. But the screenplay, despite its gaps in logic, keeps the action and characterization in appropriate flux.

3. Another frequent criticism of Street Kings is that it’s predictable.

It’s a genre movie, so of course, some of it is generic, but I think what happens to Wander and to Ludlow is up for grabs. We can guess, but we don’t know. It may surprise us.

4. Many reviewers think Street Kings is dated.

The story originally was written after 1992 riots in L.A., so critics immediately jump to the conclusion that it must be dated, since it now is set in 21st-century Los Angeles.

One of the strengths of L.A. Confidential is that it’s set in the past, so it keeps its corruption in the past. So, too, did Chinatown (1974).

The first eight years of this century are in a fuzzy time warp. In 2008, there’s still rampant greed, fraudulent loyalty, potent racial discord, and institutional corruption. American culture has kept them alive and prosperous, so what might seem dated is still kicking.

5. This is the big one. Street Kings is not nice.

The majority of reviewers who gutted the film referred to its unpleasant characters and negative vision. Reviewers like Roeper reject the film’s view of society.

No cynicism allowed. For them movies should be politically correct. They think they aren’t politically correct, but they leap willy-nilly into its briar patch. Political correctness is as much moderate as right-wing or left. It’s usually literal and ignores context.

The US of A in 2008 is a sanitized society. Samantha Power and Geraldine Ferraro have been ousted from opposing Democratic campaigns because of frankness. Anyone who speaks unsanitized thought is going to lose.

This is the Age of the Teflon military. Everyone who serves is a hero. We are paying PC recompense for the 1960s.

But James Ellroy (right) is not PC; he’s more S.O.B. He’s a defender of the LAPD, but he’s a hard case.

Does Street Kings deliver? I think it does. It’s a slam-bang action movie with moral twists.

Lighten up, reviewers. Or Ayres, Ellroy, et al. will punch you in the mouth.

And I’ve got their back.