Fourteen years after his Zen-action-cop star turn in Speed, a haggard and mildly jowly Keanu Reeves wakes up at the start of Street Kings, cleans his gun ominously, takes a disgusted look in the mirror, pukes a little, and glugs vodka from airplane bottles while driving to a phony arms deal with Koreatown gangsters. After baiting his quarry with some racist cracks (presumably remnants of an overhauled James Ellroy script) and taking a beating, LAPD vice detective Tom Ludlow (Reeves) trails the hoods to their lair and blows them all away, grabbing heroic laurels by freeing two teenage girl captives. That Ludlow places guns in his victims’ lifeless hands afterward, the easier to lie his way through a debriefing, is standard operating procedure to his protective captain (Forest Whitaker) and mildly jealous colleagues; “How can you shoot a guy who’s taking a shit?” one wonders instead. “That’s sacred!”
An ungainly and fetid but seldom dull mishmash of ‘70s Eastwood, Lethal Weapon, and a high-octane Serpico, Street Kings opportunistically miscasts Reeves as “the point of the spear” among a unit of Dirty Harrys, but it’s only a semi-mistake. Keanu’s metronome cadences and recessive persona are a seeming nonstarter for a menacing, reckless cop, but as a dissipated, lost soul who’s only saved from oblivion when he struggles against the ethical whirlpool he finds himself in, he resonates. Along with some episodes of racial collision (Ludlow forced to field complaints from black and Latino Angelenos after a desk reassignment, Whitaker and a dogged Internal Affairs captain played by Hugh Laurie reducing their enmity to a dick-oriented game of the Dozens), the star’s lost youth and aura of gloom (much more palpable than in Mel Gibson’s Lethal cousin) give this kinetic timewaster some juice. When paired with pretty, buff Chris Evans as an initially cynical homicide detective who becomes an ally, Reeves seems further grizzled, or at least inescapably middle-aged, as he does with a neglected, significantly younger nurse girlfriend (Martha Higareda) who complains she only sees him when he’s been shot.
The rough, bloody energy choreographed by director David Ayer can only cover up so much of the progressively absurd plotting, for Street Kings flaunts a hard-on for the bullyboy ardor of evidence-swiping, suspect-framing police before contortedly damning it in the end. After witnessing the machine-gun murder of his reportedly snitching ex-partner, Ludlow protests efforts to bury the investigation so he won’t be implicated, and sets out to find the killers (you’ll know exactly where this is going by the 20-minute mark). It takes an A-1 rogue cop to lasso a city full of them, not a whistleblowing Serpico, and with deadly force. (A dozen or two numbing shootings aside, Ludlow’s nickname “Phone Book” is vividly illustrated with a hood played by rapper the Game feeling the brunt of the Yellow Pages.)
Standing out playfully in the supporting cast are Cedric the Entertainer as a car-proud felon and Jay Mohr, curling his lip fatuously as a bad-mustached colleague of Ludlow’s. Whitaker, all flying spittle and sweat as the devious captain, is spirited but wasted, yet again. The only mystery, given the final reels’ silliness, is why Fox’s specialty label Searchlight is affixed to the film; surely two decades of TV’s post-Bochco dirty-cop dramas have removed this kind of potboiler not only from claims of artiness, but from expectations of being taken seriously.