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+