Keanu Reeves in Street Kings.

Reviews of the latest films.
April 10 2008 12:18 PM


Keanu Reeves as a Dirty Harry-style cop in Street Kings.

Forest Whitaker and Keanu Reeves in Street Kings. Click image to expand.
Forest Whitaker and Keanu Reeves in Street Kings

The press bio of David Ayer, who wrote Training Day and directed the new Street Kings (Fox Searchlight) from a story by James Ellroy, trumpets Ayer's gritty coming-of-age experience in Los Angeles, with the director himself extolling his "organic understanding of what's happening on the streets of L.A. on any given day."* But however comfortable he may be chillaxin' in South Central, Ayer's scripts read like the work of a latchkey kid left home with a battered VHS tape of To Live and Die in L.A. In that William Friedkin classic, a pair of cops, one a moral blank slate, the other a gonzo narcissist, use their state-sanctioned power to cross far, far over the thin blue line. It's a structure that Ayer has reproduced intact in every one of his films so far, including Dark Blue, which he wrote with Ellroy, and Harsh Times, his 2006 self-financed directorial debut. To make an Ayer film, you place a ruthless but charismatic older cop in the driver's seat of a Crown Victoria, plonk down an Oedipally challenged rookie by his side, fill the glove box with miniature bottles of vodka, speed to the ghetto, and see what happens.

But what if the cop in that driver's seat isn't Denzel Washington or Kurt Russell but the waxen, perpetually boyish Keanu Reeves? Though he's given a younger sidekick (Chris Evans) for a brief stretch later in the movie, Reeves' Tom Ludlow must, in essence, contain both sides of the Training Day dialectic within himself. He's both the macho, trigger-happy hothead and the sensitive soul sworn to root out corruption in his own unit. Early on, Tom's boss, police captain Jack Wander (Forest Whitaker), tips him off that his former partner Washington (Terry Crews) has been snitching to Internal Affairs about Tom's disregard for search warrants and Miranda rights, not to mention his penchant for smoking bad guys before bothering to discern whether they pose an imminent threat.

In a wildly improbable convenience-store holdup, Washington the whistle-blower is killed by masked thugs just as Tom is about to confront him. Tom's fellow cops, assuming that he arranged the hit, close ranks to protect him from the suspicions of Internal Affairs investigator Capt. Biggs (Hugh Laurie). But Tom's idealistic side—his inner Ethan Hawke, if you will—can't allow Washington's murder to go unsolved. His tenacity will lead him into the tangled bowels of the L.A. drug world, where he'll interrogate one suspect (played by rapper The Game) with telephone-book blows to the head, trap another in a loop of razor wire, and use an easygoing junkie named Scribble (Cedric the Entertainer) as a human shield.

By the time Ludlow uncovers the real source of the moral rot in his department (a perpetrator so obvious that Scooby and Shaggy would have nailed it by the first commercial), the audience can no longer make any meaningful distinction between this gleefully brutal enforcer and the street scum he's resolved to eliminate. "All of us are scum" would be a dishearteningly nihilistic message, but it's never clear what Ayer is trying to say.

A closing shot in which Ludlow, on a balcony high above the city, surveys the smoggy bowl of Los Angeles harks back to a line spoken by Whitaker's character earlier in the movie. Without Ludlow's brand of maverick policing, he asks, "Who'll hold back the animals?" So which is it: Has Ludlow lost our sympathy by sinking to the level of "the animals," or are we, the policed, just too craven to admit that we depend upon that brutality for our protection? There's something cynical about Ayer's attempt to preserve Ludlow as a hero after scene upon scene meant to show, with heavy irony, how lawlessly he enforced the law. You can't lionize your Dirty Harry vigilante and expose his hypocrisy, too.

Correction, April 10, 2008: The article originally misspelled the name of director David Ayer. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.


Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

Republicans Like Scott Walker Are Building Campaigns Around Problems That Don’t Exist

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

The Best Way to Organize Your Fridge

The World

Iran and the U.S. Are Allies

They just aren’t ready to admit it yet.

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

Chief Justice John Roberts Says $1,000 Can’t Buy Influence in Congress. Looks Like He’s Wrong.

A No-Brainer Approach to Fighting Poverty: Better Birth Control

  News & Politics
The World
Sept. 16 2014 11:56 AM Iran and the U.S. Are Allies Against ISIS but Aren’t Ready to Admit It Yet
Business Insider
Sept. 16 2014 1:23 PM Germany Has Asked Google to Reveal Its Search Algorithm, but That's Not Going to Happen
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 15 2014 11:38 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 4  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Listen."
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 1:27 PM The Veronica Mars Spinoff Is Just Amusing Enough to Keep Me Watching
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 1:41 PM You Can Play the Original Doom on a Hacked Canon Printer
  Health & Science
Sept. 16 2014 1:39 PM The Case of the Missing Cerebellum How did a Chinese woman live 24 years missing part of her brain?
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.