Let us praise Keanu Reeves. Truly. He's one of the most unfairly maligned actors in modern cinema; the star is blessed with impossibly good looks and cursed with a tragically inexpressive voice. As if aware of this handicap, Reeves has compensated by carefully choosing his projects and relying on physical grace to reach the A-list. Not since Burt Lancaster (a former acrobat) has an actor been so clearly attuned to his physicality. Whether it's his goofy loose-armed saunter in Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure, his cautiously bewildered embrace of power in The Matrix or his bitter slouch in Constantine, there's more going on in Reeves' performances than you might first think.
Take his latest turn as a vigilante cop in Street Kings. Channeling Clint Eastwood circa '73, Reeves' Tom Ludlow is a clever mix of poker-faced violence and wide-eyed sincerity; he's simultaneously a babe in the woods and an unstoppable killing machine. If he's chatting up other characters or spending downtime with his woman, Ludlow's clumsy and restrained. But he's fluid and self-assured when pumping bullets into Korean sex slavers and corrupt cops. There's an ironic undercurrent here: It's as if Reeves is paying homage and poking fun of the Dirty Harry persona. It's not a deep or revelatory performance, but it's savvy enough to outshine his Oscar-winning co-star Forest Whitaker.
Too bad director David Ayer (wrote Training Day, directed Harsh Times) isn't nearly as smart. Working off a story by James Ellroy, Street Kings' tale of corrupt, violent, greedy L.A. cops is effectively cynical but amounts to little more than a season of The Shield compacted into two hours. And no matter how hard Keanu tries (and he doesn't try that much) he ain't no Vic Mackey.
Hotshot Ludlow finds himself in Internal Affairs' crosshairs when his ex-partner (Terry Crews) reports to Captain Biggs (Hugh Laurie) that members of the unit may be on the take and executing criminals without due process. So Ludlow ignores his boss' (Whitaker) order to lay low and follows his ex-partner to a convenience store, only to watch him gunned down by two masked robbers. Soon, Ludlow and a young rookie (Chris Evans) are uncovering a tangled web of false identities, buried corpses, missing evidence and department triple-crosses. It's all pretty predictable (and implausible) stuff with only a few decent action scenes and a pervasive atmosphere of dread to keep it interesting.
As a director, Ayer is still developing. His action sequences are competent, albeit with an over-reliance on handheld close-ups, which undermines the film's sense of geography.
While the director has attracted a strong cast, the convoluted material doesn't do them any favors, and Ayer often mistakes shouting for drama. Laurie is bland and underused, and Whitaker shouts too much and is so bombastic you fear for his heart. Secondary stalwarts (Jay Mohr, John Corbett and Cedric the Entertainer) struggle to elevate ridiculous dialogue. Evans is potentially interesting as the inexperienced recruit, but his character is too quickly shoved aside in favor of obvious plot turns.
Ultimately, Street Kings isn't necessarily a bad film — it's an overly familiar one that has neither the substance nor panache of Ellroy or Ayer at their best. You're probably better off taking another look at L.A. Confidential or Training Day. Reeves fans can take heart, though.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.