Laden with leaden testosterone, Street Kings receives no coronation as a cop thriller. It gives one, though, dubbing Forest Whitaker the black Al Pacino. When he’s on, he’s on. When he’s bad, he’s unwatchable. Whitaker’s performance here is as garish and distracting as his character’s ties.
It’s in Whitaker’s favor that misery loves company in Kings which should include its cast’s charisma amid its bloody body count. Snitches go tumbling from rooftops into barbed-wire fences and masked assassins empty semi-automatic weapons point-blank into a bald man’s head.
Rarely does Keanu Reeves miscalculate his mainstream roles, but he’s woefully matched with the material, playing a conflicted cop described as “a guided missile.” He’s more like a dud bottle rocket. Once a Human Torch in Fantastic Four, Chris Evans is a detective nicknamed Disco with the personality of an unlit match. Spunky Naomie Harris (Miami Vice) is wasted as a grieving widow. Jay Mohr’s Hitler mustache just might be the funniest thing the comedian’s ever done.
After 109 depressingly predictable minutes that feel like 190, it’s hard to understand what potential anyone saw in the latest dirty-cop thriller from David Ayer (Training Day, Harsh Times, and Dark Blue). “Kings” has those movies’ malevolence, but not their magnetism, and don’t be fooled by co-writer James Ellroy’s credit. This is no The Black Dahlia. It’s “The Black Duh-lia.”
Reeves is Tom Ludlow, a functioning-drunk L.A. cop taking his latest step into an unethical muck. Sure, he saves kidnapped twins from sex slavery, but he bypasses judge and jury to play executioner to their captors. It takes dirtying up the crime scene to sell it, but it’s a big bust for Tom and his captain, Jack Wander (Whitaker), leading an untouchable group of head-knocking cops.
There’s no love lost for Tom, particularly from former partner Terrence Washington (Terry Crews), who may be ratting him out to internal affairs officer James Biggs (Hugh Laurie, escaping unscathed if only by playing House with a badge).
Planning to confront Terrence, Tom tracks him to a gas station only to see Terrence violently gunned down. His death sets off a chain of events that will implicate Tom in the murder and trigger his crisis of conscience.
Will the shooters have a pipeline to the police? Will Tom have a dead wife whom he’s never quite gotten over? Will the sheer number of recognizable actors in the movie be a tip-off most of them are dirty? Will the script contain awful lines like “You went toe to toe with evil and you won”? Hmmm.
Originally titled The Night Watchman, Street Kings has a new mas macho name that matches its equally posing narrative maneuvers. Anyone who’s seen any dirty-cop movie can figure out everything that’s happening, and Reeves does nothing to throw off that trail. He’s nowhere near Christian Bale, Kurt Russell or Denzel Washington in Ayer’s rogue gallery of fascinatingly flawed antiheroes. Hopefully, it’s not the sort of role that will send him down a straight-to-DVD path.
And just when it seems Street Kings is done trotting out talented performers to waste, there’s Cedric the Entertainer. Oh, sorry. That’s Cedric “The Entertainer” Kyles. Because you want to have that last-name legitimacy for drama not in a movie where you mourn Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Talk to Me) but one in which you get shot in the back in a dirty trailer.
Kyles uses his last name because he’s not trying to be very funny. Fitting in a movie that’s not trying to be very good.