Keanu Reeves as a Dirty Harry-style cop in Street Kings.

Forest Whitaker and Keanu Reeves in Street Kings. Click image to expand.
Forest Whitaker and Keanu Reeves in Street Kings

The press bio of David Ayer, who wrote Training Day and directed the new Street Kings (Fox Searchlight) from a story by James Ellroy, trumpets Ayer’s gritty coming-of-age experience in Los Angeles, with the director himself extolling his “organic understanding of what’s happening on the streets of L.A. on any given day.”* But however comfortable he may be chillaxin’ in South Central, Ayer’s scripts read like the work of a latchkey kid left home with a battered VHS tape of To Live and Die in L.A. In that William Friedkin classic, a pair of cops, one a moral blank slate, the other a gonzo narcissist, use their state-sanctioned power to cross far, far over the thin blue line. It’s a structure that Ayer has reproduced intact in every one of his films so far, including Dark Blue, which he wrote with Ellroy, and Harsh Times, his 2006 self-financed directorial debut. To make an Ayer film, you place a ruthless but charismatic older cop in the driver’s seat of a Crown Victoria, plonk down an Oedipally challenged rookie by his side, fill the glove box with miniature bottles of vodka, speed to the ghetto, and see what happens.

But what if the cop in that driver’s seat isn’t Denzel Washington or Kurt Russell but the waxen, perpetually boyish Keanu Reeves? Though he’s given a younger sidekick (Chris Evans) for a brief stretch later in the movie, Reeves’ Tom Ludlow must, in essence, contain both sides of the Training Day dialectic within himself. He’s both the macho, trigger-happy hothead and the sensitive soul sworn to root out corruption in his own unit. Early on, Tom’s boss, police captain Jack Wander (Forest Whitaker), tips him off that his former partner Washington (Terry Crews) has been snitching to Internal Affairs about Tom’s disregard for search warrants and Miranda rights, not to mention his penchant for smoking bad guys before bothering to discern whether they pose an imminent threat.

In a wildly improbable convenience-store holdup, Washington the whistle-blower is killed by masked thugs just as Tom is about to confront him. Tom’s fellow cops, assuming that he arranged the hit, close ranks to protect him from the suspicions of Internal Affairs investigator Capt. Biggs (Hugh Laurie). But Tom’s idealistic side—his inner Ethan Hawke, if you will—can’t allow Washington’s murder to go unsolved. His tenacity will lead him into the tangled bowels of the L.A. drug world, where he’ll interrogate one suspect (played by rapper The Game) with telephone-book blows to the head, trap another in a loop of razor wire, and use an easygoing junkie named Scribble (Cedric the Entertainer) as a human shield.

By the time Ludlow uncovers the real source of the moral rot in his department (a perpetrator so obvious that Scooby and Shaggy would have nailed it by the first commercial), the audience can no longer make any meaningful distinction between this gleefully brutal enforcer and the street scum he’s resolved to eliminate. “All of us are scum” would be a dishearteningly nihilistic message, but it’s never clear what Ayer is trying to say.

A closing shot in which Ludlow, on a balcony high above the city, surveys the smoggy bowl of Los Angeles harks back to a line spoken by Whitaker’s character earlier in the movie. Without Ludlow’s brand of maverick policing, he asks, “Who’ll hold back the animals?” So which is it: Has Ludlow lost our sympathy by sinking to the level of “the animals,” or are we, the policed, just too craven to admit that we depend upon that brutality for our protection? There’s something cynical about Ayer’s attempt to preserve Ludlow as a hero after scene upon scene meant to show, with heavy irony, how lawlessly he enforced the law. You can’t lionize your Dirty Harry vigilante and expose his hypocrisy, too.

Correction, April 10, 2008: The article originally misspelled the name of director David Ayer. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)