REVIEW: Street Kings [2008]

“I’m already packed”

What I love about David Ayer’s work is that he is unpredictable and unafraid to tell a story in all its brutality. From his penned script Training Day to his directorial debut in Harsh Times, we are treated with bad men and worse men, doing what they need to survive and not worrying about the consequences. When I saw the trailer for his new film Street Kings, I thought I’d be in for a three-peat, but I should have looked at the writing credits. Don’t get me wrong, I like James Ellroy and Kurt Wimmer, I enjoy much of their work, however, knowing Ayer’s catalog makes me believe that it was their fault why I did not love this film. The aesthetic is there, the language is there, and the violence is never shied away from, but the story itself never surprises. You will be able to see what will happen straight from the getgo and unfortunately that just isn’t what I’m used to seeing with Ayer. I expected more and hopefully for his next film he won’t go gun-for-hire and instead write his own new urban street tale.

Don’t be fooled by the trailer, this is not a story about a corrupt cop on his day to day jaunts busting heads and covering his tracks. It’s about the good cop that has lost his faith, while he may go against the rules, he will only do it for the right reasons; he hasn’t gone completely off the deep end. No, it’s those around him that are lost and he must find two cop killers when everyone just wants to let it go in order to save his skin. True he wants the cover up to keep his job, but he also wants justice for his ex-partner, a man he began to dislike but a man he loved and would not let die in vain. In effect, then, we are treated to a much slower paced plot then you may want as he goes out on his own to solve the case off the books. More a straightforward cop drama then a crazy shoot-em-up, we are shown this one story thread through to its inevitable conclusion. It’s all tidied up with a bow, villains explain the whole plan like the old cliché goes, and we get closure. Ayer, you aren’t supposed to be so cut and dry, what happened?

Being such a by the numbers tale also means sacrificing a lot of character development. Roles like Naomie Harris’ are throwaways, putting a name actress in a small part with no real substance. The same goes for Hugh Laurie, third billed and quite entertaining, but does his Captain Biggs have any real need to be there? You could have put any guy off the street in that role and it would have served its purpose as a MacGuffin to be explained later. And how about Common? The guy owns his five minutes of screentime; it’s just a shame that is all he is allowed. Not to mention John Corbett who doesn’t even get a billing on IMDB, now that’s just strange.

The acting is great overall though. Forest Whitaker is a bit too showy for me, but I love the guy so I give him a pass; Chris Evans is top-notch as usual, hopefully a true breakthrough role is coming for him; and Jay Mohr comes out of nowhere playing the aged Sgt. without any of his trademark wit. Even Cedric the Entertainer comes in shedding any comedic preconceptions. He plays his not-so-bad thug sounding like Terrence Howard in Hustle and Flow; I was shockingly impressed. The guy that holds it all together, though, is Keanu Reeves. I know people hate the guy, but I think he is solidly perfect here. He has the dejection and death sentence look about him, taking the kills for himself so that his partners don’t have to live with the guilt. He knows what he does is wrong, but he does it because he believes he has to. Sometimes to keep the city safe, you have to bend the rules. Reeves looks weathered and beat-down here, totally believable as the cop looking to do right despite his actions. Real good stuff.

So, well directed and well acted, but yet not that great? Doesn’t seem to make sense, yet that’s my feeling. All the good stuff tries to overcompensate for the generic, lackluster story. One thing about cinema, though—and maybe the writers strike was worth it, even though those wanting the strike for more money were mostly the hacks, the true auteurs already get the cash—a good script overcomes all and a bad one cannot be saved. Unfortunately this one never goes that extra mile to be completely unique and the performances just fall into place when necessary rather than enhancing to bring the tale to new heights. If you haven’t seen it yet, go rent Harsh Times, save this one for a rental in a few months instead.

Street Kings 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

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