Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Cinewise Throwback - Street Kings (2008)

Continuing our oddly-themed Kurt Wimmer week, here’s what we once wrote about Street Kings (2008)…

Street Kings is a formulaic Los Angeles crime drama, but it’s at least an interesting formulaic Los Angeles crime drama. True to its James Ellroy roots, it offers up a stoic, hard-nosed detective (affably played by Keanu Reeves) looking to clean up his mess and his conscience in a corrupt police force where the winnings more often than not fall in the laps of the men at the top. And true to David Ayer’s directorial vision (the writer behind 2005's Harsh Times and 2001's Training Day), the L.A. playground that occupies these men is dark, gritty and explosive. So what if you see the ending coming by the 17th minute? There’s still plenty here to enjoy.

Back in the earlier days of tinsel town, when “the twist” wasn’t the quality-defining element in all things thriller and excitement, genre films dominated by supplying audiences with new takes on the same old thing. The Western’s always saw the good guys win, the gangster flicks always ended on a note of grandiose righteousness. Even the noir, which essentially ushered in the desire for twists with its “whodunit” sensibilities, often hit best with films like Double Indemnity, where the cards are played face out but with no less impact.

Street Kings is no Double Indemnity (1944), but you can’t write it off simply because everything here plays out more or less as you think it will. Heck, by that standard you’d have to write off the majority of the flicks available at your local Cineplex.

You could, however, criticize Street Kings for being resoundingly average…and I will. Because it shouldn’t have been. Kings is engineered to be a modern “dude” masterpiece, a film to be cherished by macho guys the world over. It brings to the table literary pedigree of the cool (Ellroy), enticing L.A. street sensibility and action (Ayer) and a killer cast that includes Forrest Whitaker, Hugh Laurie, Chris Evans, Jay Mohr, Cedric the Entertainer and rappers Common and The Game. A who’s who of dude favorites, spearheaded by His Dudeness, Mr. “I know kung fu” himself. (Not to be confused with The Dude, The Duder or El Duderino, all of which remain comfortably in a decidedly different L.A. crime world).

But aside from Neo, only Laurie escapes entirely intact, his comrades falling victim to wasted or inappropriate roles. The screenplay (co-written by Ellroy and up-and-comer Kurt Wimmer) packs several punches, but too often simply goes through the motions, dancing around the ring waiting for the TKO. But Ayer brings an edge to it, a modern L.A. darkness that penetrates the gritty Shield-like aura. I suspect this is the kind of flick that could find future audiences in retrospect.

In the meantime, Ayer has established his own niche in this subgenre. There are better flicks out there (i.e. 1997's L.A. Confidential and 2002's Dark Blue, which he wrote), but Street Kings and its brethren, brandishing their own style of L.A. justice, are at least enough to tide us over when those films are unavailable.

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