Life is grim for L.A. Detective Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves). You know this because he wakes up with his face smashed into his bed and wearing his clothes from the day before. Making his way into the bathroom, he peers into the mirror and seems surprised to see himself, just before he careens to the toilet to puke. You might be surprised too: this is not the Keanu Reeves of the Matrix or Speed days. Instead, he’s puffy and surly, Neo if he hadn’t met Trinity, Neo unsaved.
The next scenes in Street Kings reveal just how unsaved Tom is. He drives, his face set and mean. He stops to buy airplane bottles of vodka, three. And then, prepared to conduct business, he meets with a set of Korean thugs looking to buy the large weapons he has in his trunk: they trade insults, the usual movie tough talk premised on “fuck” and racist throwaways (even, so clever, a pop allusion, in “Konichiwa, bitch”). Tom takes a beating, grunts and bleeds, loses his car. And then you see, he’s got a plan. He’s a cop who gets his job done no matter the lines he has to cross or the bad guys he has to murder. He shoots up a hideout, kills kidnappers, and saves twin girls in Koreatown, thus earning praise from his captain, Jack Wander (Forest Whitaker). Even when his ex-partner Washington (Terry Crews) arrives on the scene, apparently just to chide his vigilantism and worry about Korean “blowback,” Jack the anti-Morpheus loves his golden boy: “Fuck ‘em,” he says, “Screw ‘em. You went toe to toe with evil and you won. You saved those girls.” That’s exactly what he was supposed to do. And no, King Kong ain’t got nothing on him.
Indeed, even with the race dynamics not very scrambled, David Ayer’s latest film looks a lot like Training Day, which he wrote. Though this one is credited in part to James Ellroy, it’s the same movie, simultaneously formulaic and hysterical, recalling as well Ayer’s last script, Harsh Times. Tom’s trouble isn’t so much that he’s a member of Jack’s overconfident strike squad, but that he doesn’t understand what that means. Though he’s perfectly able to lie his way through a report on the massacre he’s just committed, having placed guns in the victims’ hands before Crime Scene arrived (“Exigent circumstances,” he recites, “I heard screams emanating from the house and ascertained a crime was in progress”), he’s somehow startled to learn that the team is under investigation by Internal Affairs. Or maybe he’s just indignant.
The rest of the team appears clued in, casually brutal and aggressively immoral (though Santos [Amaury Nolasco] does wonder how Tom can “shoot a guy taking a dump!”), but Tom apparently believes his own hype: he is god’s gift to the streets, evil-doers be damned. Warned away from Jack by another captain, Biggs (Hugh Laurie), Tom doesn’t break rank: his sense of self is all tangled up in those loony-tunes morality stories Jack tells him. Tensions mount, a cop gets killed—horribly, as Tom watches from an aisle in a convenience store—and suddenly the department’s “most dangerous white boy” is looking to solve the murder in order to redeem his own name. Not that he knew he had to.
It’s this ignorance that makes the film go, but also makes it silly. Tom is a walking set of buttons ready to push, apparently, so predictable in his rage and lunacy and skill set that his superiors use him to do their less savory work. Still mourning the death of his unfaithful wife, Tom’s well known around the precinct and even the morgue, an easy mark. (His one off-the-rails moment comes when he takes the convenience store surveillance DVD to the dead man’s wife [Naomie Harris, wasted here]: “I know not knowing hurts,” he murmurs, as she rightly looks at him like he’s from Mars.) When Tom’s investigation pairs him with the young and gung-ho jarhead Diskant (Chris Evans), Tom is suddenly the senior partner, supposedly wise but obviously not. They make the expected rounds, meet up with the usual suspects, including a Cadillac-driving, reluctant informant (Cedric the Entertainer) and a straight-up thug, the unimaginatively monikered Grill (The Game), in place essentially to demonstrate—with his head—why Tom is called “Phonebook.”
Like other tough cops gone or going bad in Ayer’s universe, Tom assuages his pain and asserts his heteromasculinity by bedding a “hot” Latina love interest, the ER doctor so significantly named Grace (Martha Higareda). Good thing too, because you’d hate to think there was something actually at stake in the boys’ incessant dick measuring and strutting. Facing off with John Corbett (as the dodgy Detective Demille), Tom is briefly tested, as they match capacities for pain and blood loss. But you know who will win: he’s John Corbett, and Tom’s not.
What Tom is, is slow on the uptake. That’s not to say he’s unbelievable (Reeves is convincingly tired and irritated at being tired), but he does appear never to have seen the movie he’s in, even though everyone else has. By the time he runs into the gangster Coates (played by ever-smooth Common) who calls himself and his less chatty partner a “straight nightmare,” Tom is a manifest lost cause. He’s walked into a room thick with clichés and fits right in. Even if he does figure out this crime and recognize that he is not, as Jack tells him, “the tip of the fucking spear who’s gonna hold back the animals,” Tom has done too much damage to come out all right. As the white boy hero yet again ponders his past and future, his brow creases. He is, after all, the one.