It’s probably safe to say that no fiction writer ever created bad cops as bad as James Ellroy’s. In Street Kings, a squalid and bloodthirsty policier based on an original story by the author of L.A. Confidential, Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves), a veteran LAPD vice cop, trash-talks racist garbage to a gang of? Korean hoods, then storms their lair and shoots them dead with a fury that would leave Dirty Harry scrambling for his tattered copy of the Miranda rights. In the process, Ludlow rescues two girls that the gang had been hawking to pedophiles — and so, on the film’s terms, he’s a hero. But with heroes like this, who needs scumbags?
Every so often, Keanu Reeves’ robo-voiced blankness serves him well, but when he has to play a pulpy, tormented demon-saint, scraping up insults and spitting them out like bullets, he’s like the host of an infomercial doing an impersonation of a badass. Director David Ayer, who is best known as the screenwriter of Training Day, had a brazen (if little-seen) directorial debut with Harsh Times (2006), in which Christian Bale gave a high-flying, almost evil performance as a psycho desperate to be a cop. In the new film, Ayer tries for that same volcanic flow, but Street Kings is more like L.A. Confidential reduced to a board game. The structure is in place — the latticework of corruption — only there are so many scurrilous men pulling strings that we might be watching a parade of nasty puppets, with Keanu as the chief wooden devil doll. C+