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POLICE brutality goes down more easily when the cops look sharp and the past provides a measure of storytelling distance, as was the case in director Curtis Hanson's adaptation of the James Ellroy crime novel "L.A. Confidential." Take away the early 1950s lapels and the Brilliantine hair, however, and an audience has a very different relationship to the viciousness on screen.
The proof's in "Street Kings," a shrill, brutal bash set in contemporary L.A. or something like it, written by Ellroy, and then rewritten by Kurt Wimmer and Jamie Moss from Ellroy's story. Again we're neck-deep in police corruption and more unwarranted searches than a season's worth of "The Shield." But any other comparison to "L.A. Confidential," or any other police corruption drama worth seeing, ends there. Director David Ayer, who poured on the City of Angels law enforcement angst in the "Training Day" screenplay and wrote and directed the more interesting "Harsh Times," keeps things at a pitch of near-hysteria throughout "Street Kings." If a cop movie could be screened for fictional characters, Clint Eastwood's Harry Callahan might well mutter: "Why don't these thugs just calm down?"
The paradox at the center is Keanu Reeves. He is not an actor you associate readily with cops on the edge, or edging past the edge. When we first meet his character, Det. Tom Ludlow, he's an alcoholic mess (though Reeves has to work very, very hard at conveying any sort of messiness) who arranged to sell a stash of weapons to a scary group of Korean-American gangstas.
It's all a set-up for the big bust; this being Ellroyland, the thugs have penned up underage women in their closet back at the thug house, and when Ludlow's done with the bad men the blood's all over the walls and the coroner's alerted. Ludlow's department boss, played by Forest Whitaker, is mighty proud: "You went toe-to-toe with evil and you won," he says.
"Street Kings" tries to complicate the usual avenging-angel-with-a-badge idea, so that Ludlow must eventually reckon with the extent of the evil he's doing, and what his fellow officers get up to in the name of human garbage collection. When Ludlow's bitter ex-partner is murdered in a convenience store robbery, Ludlow, in an awkwardly plotted bit, just happens to be there, ripe for implication in the killing. As an internal affairs honcho (Hugh Laurie of "House," delivering the exposition with a sneer) keeps the screws tightening around Ludlow's future, Ludlow has to find out who's behind the killing, and why.
The movie runs around chasing subplots, letting the actors chew it up, while Reeves does the opposite. He doesn't chew. He practices his seething, keeping his voice in as low and weary a register as possible, trying to Clint and Vin Diesel his way through a role not well-suited to his preferred Zen-like mode.
In story terms "Street Kings" may not approve of all the rampant police nastiness on screen, but in visceral terms it's all for it. The racism of the various set-ups is hard to ignore. Scene after scene, raging white cops take out the multicultural L.A. trash. Ayer manages a couple of well-staged slaughters. Of course, you can get that sort of thing anywhere these days on television. And you can get it without having to put up with Graeme Revell's ludicrous musical score, which hypes the living end out of each and every vein-throbbing, fire-breathing encounter.
In Ellroy's original scenario "Street Kings" was a period piece, set in the 1990s just after the Rodney King riots. I wonder if it would've made more sense that way. As is, it unfolds in a present that feels dislocated and artificial, where everybody talks fancy-gangster talk while turning the mean streets even meaner.
"Street Kings." MPAA rating: R for strong violence and pervasive language. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes. In general release.