For a movie built around failed ethics and duplicitous behavior, Street Kings is just as dishonest as its characters. You sense that an infinitely more complex drama exists within the film's grasp, but no one bothered to stop guzzling the testosterone long enough to find it.
Director David Ayer's résumé only magnifies that disappointment. He gave Denzel Washington his second Oscar with his Training Day script, and in his directorial debut, 2006's Harsh Times — an underrated buddy drama starring Christian Bale and Freddy Rodríguez as an unstable Iraq vet and his disreputable best friend — he demonstrated a faculty for pinpointing the economic hardships and emotional impotence that spur guy's-guy bravado. But such analysis takes a backseat in Street Kings, and all we're left with is the bravado — that and Keanu Reeves, who plays Los Angeles detective Tom Ludlow, an ethically slippery lawman reeling from his wife's death.
Though worried that his former partner, Detective Terrance Washington (Terry Crews), might be ratting him out to Internal Affairs (personified by Hugh Laurie, in full House accent) for his past indiscretions, Ludlow knows that he's protected by his powerful boss in Administrative Vice, Captain Wander (Forest Whitaker), who dotes on his team of hard-asses like a proud papa. But when Washington is gunned down in a seemingly random liquor-store holdup, Ludlow pushes to find his ex-partner's killers, despite Wander's warnings not to get involved.
Rather than using this framework for a larger exploration of, well, anything, the movie leans hard on the furrowed-brow banality of its message. The B-movie screenplay approaches its cautionary tale with an arsenal of dull tough-guy dialogue, as the male characters take turns mowing down each other's masculinity when they're not delivering hard-boiled pseudo-knowledge about the nature of evil. ("Bad breeds bad," "Blood doesn't wash away blood," etc.)
Ayer's upbringing in South Central Los Angeles informs the film's vision of the city as a vibrant yet seedy multicultural mecca. But while his distinct eye gives Street Kings a pulpy vitality, Ayer understands his milieu far better than he does these characters, and he gets no help from his cast. Reeves can't fake "tortured," and that's Ludlow's only discernible trait. As for the actors who make up the Ad Vice crew, several of them (including Whitaker, Jay Mohr, and John Corbett) seem to have spent much of their preparation donning unconvincingly nefarious facial hair.
Hip-hop has long been criticized for its glorification of Scarface-style antiheroes. But Street Kings offers the flip-side fantasy, which is equally corrosive: the notion of the one righteous dude who gets his hands dirty operating outside the law in the name of justice. Edgy contemporary TV dramas like The Shield at least question the morality of such a stance. But while Street Kings pines for a gritty realism about the thin line between cops and robbers, it's hopelessly quaint at its core. The movie kicks your ass and takes your name, because it doesn't know what else to do.