In "Street Kings," a hard-boiled Keanu Reeves spends a few intense days trying to find the men who framed him for his ex-police partner's murder. In every sense, the movie is like a Rockstar Games title: The Los Angeles it has reconstructed is endless and complex, but the action is mindless - shoot, kill, win. Reeves, meanwhile, has the kind of semi-alive, pixilated face that turns up in Grand Theft Auto or Midnight Club.
Reeves is playing Tom Ludlow, a widowed vice cop. His murdered ex-partner (Terry Crews) snitched to Internal Affairs about some of Tom's past misdeeds. Tom is furious. When some cholos shoot the partner dead, Tom's culpability seems plausible to department higher-ups, including an annoying police captain (Hugh Laurie) and Tom's power-hungry boss (Forest Whitaker), who puts him in a uniform and gives him a desk job fielding complaints until the case blows over. But Tom's hot to catch the killers, and the movie works too hard to build a narrative excuse for all the shootouts and dead Asians and rap stars on the floor when they're over. Not to mention all the actors - Chris Evans, Laurie, Cedric the Entertainer, Naomie Harris, Jay Mohr, Common - who go underused. That's OK since by the end of the film, Whitaker has done enough acting for all of them.
"Street Kings" is nonsense, and yet the crooked, racialized world underneath the soulless mayhem is pretty fascinating. Ten minutes in, before Reeves's character busts two Korean-Americans looking to buy guns, he zings them with slurs - and not as part of some undercover shtick, either. The racism is a weapon. Tom wouldn't say he's a racist. Some of his best friends are black. His nurse-girlfriend is Hispanic. But in this movie race is all anybody sees when they look at anybody else.
Like a lot of movies about the LAPD, this one is a grim and vulgar hall of mirrors. Having seen "Training Day," with a gonzo Denzel Washington, and "Harsh Times," with a gonzo Christian Bale, I'm familiar with what the director and co-writer David Ayer thinks about Los Angeles law enforcement. A cop is the boogeyman - a menace to society, a menace to himself.
In Ayer's movies, the police aren't purely bad, because there is no bad, by virtue of there being no appreciable good. Maybe this seems extra-rich in "Street Kings" thanks to whatever contributions James Ellroy made to the movie's script: Corruption is the way of this world. But Ayer doesn't use his cynicism to build a consistent, complete movie. He's not an explorative director. He's a guy.
This is a movie that likes its cliches, cheap melodrama, and guns. Ayer appears to like the thrill of violence more than its philosophical underpinnings, so the movie is caught between the silly and the profound. When Tom asks, "What happened to putting the bad guys in jail," your heart goes out to him. He's still thinking like a cop, not like an avatar in a video game.