It's not easy being Det. Tom Ludlow ( Keanu Reeves). Still grieving over his recently deceased wife, he wanders the streets of Los Angeles in an alcoholic haze, shooting first, planting evidence next and answering questions later. This should be enough to get him yanked from the force, but Ludlow's dicey tactics are nothing if not effective in capturing drug dealers - and his superior, Capt. Jack Wander ( Forest Whitaker) has made it his personal mission to protect Ludlow. Until, that is, Ludlow's former partner, Terrence Washington (Terry Crews), begins talking to Internal Affairs Capt. James Biggs ( Hugh Laurie), and our anti-hero's precarious life begins to fall to pieces.
So begins "Street Kings," a thriller that combines elements of "Lethal Weapon," "Internal Affairs" and the TV show "The Shield," among many others, into one overly familiar, extremely bloody package. The director, David Ayer, wrote the screenplay for "Training Day" - and you can see that movie's fingerprints all over this one, especially in the relationship between Ludlow and his much more earnest junior colleague Det. Paul Diskant (Chris Evans). You can also see the fingerprints of "L.A. Confidential" novelist James Ellroy, who co-wrote the screenplay (with Kurt Wimmer and Jamie Moss) and who serves up yet another deeply cynical portrait of a police force that's rotten to its core.
How do you make such material fresh? In Ayer's case, the solution is to ratchet up the mayhem: Bullets pierce flesh; copious amounts of blood spill across the frame. If you dare to take a bathroom break, you'll probably miss at least two or three corpses being added to the film's considerable death count. But even this movie's violence feels recycled - a self-consciously "gritty" and "edgy" pose that owes a major debt to Abel Ferrara's "King of New York" and Mario Van Peebles' "New Jack City."
As the story unfolds, Ludlow stumbles upon a pair of gang-bangers as they're about to knock over a convenience store. Ludlow's ex-partner Washington just happens to be inside that convenience store, and when Washington ends up shot full of bullets, the security tape seems to implicate Ludlow as the killer. As in "L.A. Confidential," the twists are relentless and bafflingly convoluted; the investigation into Washington's murder seems to involve half the population of Los Angeles. The abiding question is whether Ludlow can find a way to redeem himself in the eyes of Washington's widow, Linda (Naomie Harris, whose ferocious conviction and grief cuts straight through the cops-and-robbers artifice).
A movie this familiar rises or falls on the strength of its actors, and it's here that Ayer made his biggest missteps, both in casting and (lack of) direction. In movies like "Speed" and "The Matrix," Reeves is taciturn and slightly wooden - a straight-ahead, no-nonsense action-movie hero who looks upon the chaos surrounding him with a sense of gee-whiz wonderment. In movies like "Something's Gotta Give" or "A Walk in the Clouds," he makes for a very appealing, slightly dopey dreamboat - an uncomplicated guy whose face is an open book. No one's denying his movie-star bona fides, but he's much too earnest and straightforward to play a morally muddled, trigger-happy character like Ludlow. It's like trying to imagine John Wayne play a drag queen: There are some parts that some actors have no business tackling.
Whitaker doesn't fare much better. His brand of Method-y showboating can be very effective, especially in a part like Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland," where the character he's playing is nothing but a showboat. But in "Street Kings," he adopts an affected voice and a strangely syncopated speech pattern; he's all bluster and theatrics, as if he just finished playing King Lear and can't shake the character. Ayer does nothing to rein in Whitaker's worst impulses. The performance comes across as ludicrous and overwrought - and discordant with everything around it.
The few pleasures to be found here are all fleeting: Ayer stages a couple of credible action sequences, including that convenience-store bloodbath. There's an unexpectedly fine supporting performance by Cedric the Entertainer as a squirrelly, desperate criminal who leads Ludlow to Washington's assassins.
What mostly strikes you about "Street Kings," though, are the wasted opportunities. Indeed, any movie that casts Chris Evans and Hugh Laurie alongside hip-hop stars Common and The Game (as two gang members who may or may not be what they seem) and then manages to allow the entire lot of them to fade into the background of an overly cluttered melodrama is not a movie that deserves your money or your time.
See the trailer and find local showtimes for "Street Kings."