An alarm clock disrupts the ugly beauty sleep of our man, the bedraggled detective played with his usual minimalist flair by Keanu Reeves. His apartment is a mess from central casting, with Budweiser bottles and vodka miniatures strewn around the table where he polishes his big guns. Even from the pre-credits evidence in Street Kings, we recognize the stereotype in motion from countless cop movies: Reeves will be a loner, but essentially a good cop with skeletons in the closet, bucking the system and the rampant corruption in his precinct.
Yes, he’s all of that, and yet this latest hard-edged L.A. cop movie rises above the norm of the genre, thanks to the hand and mind of writer James Ellroy, who dignifies the whole affair with his uncanny blend of street grit and intellectual puzzle-making narratives. As with his classic L.A. Confidential, Ellroy obsesses over the seedy network of dirty and dirtier cops, haunted cops, and all the visceral energies and noir-speak available to the genre.
Meanwhile, something strange this way comes in the acting department. Forest Whitaker, as the tough-talking unit leader and would-be king of his LAPD domain, resorts to his penchant for overacting, to a distracting degree, while Reeves isn’t capable of overacting in the first place. But no matter, his barely-there style suits this role beautifully. Really, this work and 2006’s A Scanner Darkly suggest that he is choosing his roles more wisely, to suit his obvious limitations. Reeves gets his sneak-attack charisma going with his slightly stunned, post-vodka-fied affect, and his basic attitude of taking no guff or prisoners, and fighting the good fight in a world of hurt.
Street Kings has its problems, and it drifts in and out of crisp focus and momentum, but something keeps us plugged into its taut, sordid doings. As Reeves tells his cautiously optimistic girlfriend, “In my world, the real world, bad breeds more bad.” And bad keeps coming at us, with grisly murders, drugs, kidnap victims, in sometimes exciting cinematic ways. The trick is to distance yourself, reasoning, “Yes, this is Los Angeles, just a short drive down the 101, but it’s only a movie.”