by ED SYMKUS & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & 'm sitting here at the keyboard, wrestling with the toughest part of writing any review -- the opening sentence -- and I learn (by surfing the Net while I should be working) that Fox Searchlight has already approached the director of Street Kings about doing a prequel.
Pardon me? Here's a film with a lot of promise (and an equal amount of flaws) that's been shown only to a few test audiences -- and the studio is already seeing so much success that they're willing to make a prequel?
Well, at least they did the right thing in changing the name of this one. Until very recently it was called The Night Watchman, and unless there were some major changes in the story, that title made no sense. Even the current title is flawed: If I had any pull in Hollywood, I would at least have it changed to the singular "King," since the film turns out being mostly about one character.
But which one character? Is this movie more about veteran Detective Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves), who's only a shell of himself ever since his wife ran off with another man, then died? Is it about police Captain Jack Wander (Forest Whitaker), the loud and forceful cop whom everyone looks up to? Or how about Captain James Biggs (Hugh Laurie), one of those Hollywood-style Internal Affairs jerks who seems to really enjoy being hated by everyone?
Detective Ludlow definitely gets the most screentime -- which is generally what happens when the actor playing that character gets top billing. But at first, there doesn't appear to be enough of a story about him to go around. Most moviegoers have had their share of the "renegade" cop who goes after justice on his own terms. In this case, Ludlow opens up the film by allowing himself to have the tar beaten out of him by a Korean gang, then returning the favor with slaughter on his mind, then pulling off a nicely delivered cover-up.
Yes, you can walk into this film knowing full well that there's going to be plenty of good guy-versus-bad guy violence, most of it done with big loud guns, and much of it leaving a bloody mess.
But clich & eacute;s start inching their way in far too early. Hey, there's the good captain, sticking up for his man, even though he doesn't exactly play by the rules. Uh-oh, watch out! Here's the bad captain -- the Internal Affairs guy -- somehow always thinking a step ahead of everyone, and absolutely, definitely, without a doubt playing by the rules.
But this is also a film about camaraderie among cops, the allegiances they keep, the things they do when some of their own are harmed. Of course, things are ratcheted way up when cops get killed.
Which brings up another difficulty with the film. Usually when the name James Ellroy appears on a story or script, you know you're in for a ride -- not so much pleasurable as something twisting and turning in which very nasty things happen to all sorts of people. But Street Kings has three names listed as writers. Whatever Kurt Wimmer and Jamie Moss' contributions were here, either working with or butting heads against the strong-willed Ellroy, the results have come out murky rather than dark. And the trajectory they set out on leads to frustration over an unconvincing "surprise" ending.
There's nothing bad to say about Reeves' performance except that, while he's good and his character is fairly believable, this is territory he's run through many times before (and he was much better at it way back in Point Break).
But there's sure something wrong with Whitaker's acting. He plays this part too edgily, spitting out most of his lines with a staccato rhythm, then increasing the volume for extra effect. He seems to be doing a semi-controlled performance of someone who's out of control.
Inventive methods of building up the onscreen body count give Street Kings a few points, but then its air of familiarity takes most of them away.