Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves) is bad news; we know this in the first minute of Street Kings, because he wakes up and grabs his gun before he even takes a piss. Ludlow hates himself; we know this in minute two, because he stares forlornly at his haggard face in the bathroom mirror. Ludlow is a drunk; we know this in the third minute, because he hurls into the toilet, then sits at a desk covered with enough empty beer bottles to make a chess set.
Give Street Kings just a few minutes more, and you'll know pretty much everything there is to know about Los Angeles vice detective Ludlow because this is a movie that assumes everyone watching is a complete moron.
Make no mistake: I'm not pretending to be shocked that a studio film assumes audiences are on equal intellectual footing with garden slugs. But, Street Kings does just about every lazy thing a movie can do, then makes you feel even dumber for not walking out earlier.
From the start it's clear Ludlow is a "shoot first, plant evidence later" badass who doesn't let procedure get in the way. His commander, Wander (Forest Whitaker), has his back, but an internal affairs detective (Hugh Laurie) and Ludlow's straight-arrow former partner Washington (Terry Crews) threaten to expose his tactics. It's convenient, then, that Washington is gunned down in a holdup a crime Ludlow is determined to solve with the help of a homicide detective (Chris Evans).
With direction by David Ayer (screenwriter for Training Day) and a story credited to L.A. Confidential author James Ellroy (who practically invented the corrupt-L.A.-cop genre), it seems like Street Kings should have something going for it. But instead, it devolves into a completely unbelievable experience.
Ludlow's alcoholism causes him to polish off cases of beer and swig from airline bottles of vodka. His girlfriend of convenience (Martha Higareda) seems to exist simply to show that Ludlow isn't gay. There's even a "magic" TV that turns on the exact news report relevant to our characters, with another character predicting what will pop up on screen. Preposterousness covers everything like a thick gravy.
But that's nothing compared to the plot's central "mystery." I'm not saying that Ludlow is the worst detective ever if it's not immediately obvious to him, but ... no, wait, yes I am. Call it a "spoiler" if you wish I'll wait here while every masochist who wants to see the movie turns away but Street Kings trots out only perfunctory feints and dodges before going exactly where you knew it would. The "What just happened?" speeches are tedious and unnecessary, and the "why'd they do it?" speech comes at a point when character motivation is long past irrelevant.
It's testimony to Street Kings' narrative ineptitude that I haven't yet mentioned the performance by Reeves, that cinderblock of cinematic thespianism. Indeed, at least part of the aforementioned problems could be attributed to not trusting Reeves to convey anything through actual acting. Maybe the film could have stood a chance if his part had gone to Evans, who has at least enough personality to give the movie a jolt of life. Then again, Ayer doesn't seem interested in filmmaking that adds complexity. It only takes three minutes to understand Street Kings' philosophy: "Keep it simple, and stupid."