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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Men in Black & Blue
by John P. McCarthy

Though he'd never let on, Sgt. Joe Friday would be devastated if Street Kings, a brutal cop thriller set in Los and directed by the screenwriter of Training Day, ever unreeled in that squad room in the sky.

Jack Webb's stoical, by-the-book Dragnet creation couldn't fathom systemic corruption within the LAPD -- the Men in Blue doing everything but protecting and serving. In contrast, writer James Ellroy (LA Confidential, The Black Dahlia) relishes the milieu and the violent drama it begets. Street Kings is based on one of his stories and he's credited with co-writing the script.

Regardless of what side of the law you're on, in the jurisdiction Ellroy imagines you'd be well-advised to wear a bullet proof vest in the bathtub, shower, or while performing any other part of your daily ablutions. 

A recurring story pushed to the hilt, Street Kings has a fiercely hyperbolic integrity. You feel sorry for the criminal element, no matter how depraved. While undistinguished stylistically, David Ayer's second directorial effort matches the blunt tactics of the so-called peace officers and is never dull. 

Keanu Reeves plays Detective Tom Ludlow, a renegade with a taste for bagging baddies by the most deadly and dirty means. In a memorable opening sequence, Ludlow wakes up as the sun is setting. He loads his gun, wretches, brushes his teeth, and -- on the way to an undercover gun buy -- stops at a liquor store to top up his supply of vodka. Things don't go well when he tries to sell firearms to some Korean thugs out of the back of his black muscle car; but the encounter leads to a solo rampage in which the gun-slinging hothead solves a major crime.

Ludlow isn't a well-adjusted guy who rationally chooses extreme policing methods as the best way to keep the streets clean. His trademark tactic is battering an uncooperative perp or potential stool pigeon with the Yellow Pages. He'd consider water boarding too humane and time-consuming. The usual things fuel his primal fury. In addition to quaffing booze out of tiny airline bottles, his suicidal fearlessness stems from his wife's unsolved murder. The fact he has the shoulder of a Latina ER nurse (Martha Higareda) to cry on hardly sets him apart.

No, what makes Ludlow interesting is that he's a member of a Vice Squad led by the nattily dressed Captain Jack Wander (Forest Whitaker). Ludlow is not a team player and is crazier than the rest of the posse. Fortunately or not, his charismatic leader Wander has his back. When Ludlow's old partner -- who disapproved of the unit's methods -- is killed and he's implicated, Wander vows to handle it.

Ludlow takes a desk job fielding civilian complaints against cops while Wander's plan plays out. The greenhorn homicide detective (Chris Evans) investigating is willing to go along with the conspiracy; but soon Ludlow, motivated more by revenge than self-preservation or an attack of conscience, convinces him they should find the real killers. Figuring out where the plot is headed won't earn you any stripes, although there is a satisfying and appropriate twist.

Parallels with Training Day, for which Denzel Washington won an Oscar, include Forest Whitaker's commanding performance. Reeves, with a heavier face that shows little sign of the former surfer dude, displays adequate range and is easily upstaged by Whitaker, who plays a character not unlike Idi Amin, for which he nabbed his Oscar. Brit Hugh Laurie (TV's House) is an excellent choice to portray the head of Internal Affairs, not least because his American accent is believable.

Ellroy's fascination with dirty cops is contagious. It's not Pollyannaish to be disgusted and worried about police corruption on the scale depicted in Street Kings. Nor is it a contradiction to be transfixed by it. Once he got over the shock, even Sgt. Joe Friday might be entertained.

(Released by Fox Searchlight and rated "R" for strong violence and pervasive language.)

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