In the early moments of Street Kings, a Los Angeles vice detective, played more purposefully than usual by Keanu Reeves, starts his morning by vomiting, which is no doubt part of his daily routine. His first order of business is to slip into a nearby convenience store, pick up some airplane-size bottles of vodka, and chase his hangover with a little hair of the dog. He then meets a pair of Korean thugs to exchange guns for cash; breaks into a home, guns blazing, without a warrant; and later tries to intimidate a former partner who's threatening to rat him out to Internal Affairs. Within 10 or 15 minutes, it's established that he's a drunk, that he operates outside procedural boundaries, and that corruption hangs over him like Pigpen's cloud of filth. He's also one of the good guys.
Welcome to James Ellroy's L.A. It was perhaps inevitable that Ellroy (L.A. Confidential) would continue his collaboration with David Ayer, whose screenplays for Training Day, Dark Blue (co-written by Ellroy), and Harsh Times (which Ayer also directed) take as received wisdom the institutional corruption and racism that pervade the LAPD. Working from an original story by Ellroy (who co-scripted with Kurt Wimmer and Jamie Moss), Ayer's overwrought Street Kings splashes around in the slop, but its conclusions seem a little rote from these two, who have both expressed their bottomless cynicism more effectively in the past.
Cast smartly against type, Reeves plays another in a long line of Ayer anti-heroes, though he's hard-pressed to match the snake-oil charisma of Denzel Washington in Training Day or Kurt Russell in Dark Blue. The soupy Ellroy plot places Reeves in a convenience store as two masked gunman shoot his former partner (Terry Crews) in a botched robbery attempt. Reeves immediately falls under suspicion of having arranged the hit to avoid being implicated by the victim, but he gets support from powerful vice captain Forest Whitaker, who has plenty of skeletons in his own closet.
Whitaker's freewheeling team of detectives, bonded less by true loyalty than by the taint of extracurricular shenanigans, recalls Michael Chiklis and his "Strike Team" on the FX show The Shield, and the comparison does Street Kings no favors. The film doesn't have the time to detail the history of Whitaker's gang or delineate their individual relationships; instead, it tries to compensate with over-the-top intensity, as if sheer volume were an aesthetic value. After all the actorly fireworks, Street Kings concludes that the LAPD is an institution where even the well-intentioned can't work clean. Okay. What else?