A brutal, gorgeous sprawl of paved-over desert, David Ayer's Los Angeles is a place of grime and blood. Flickering with neon and burnt by deep-orange sunsets, the stylized neo-noir tales that Ayer has either written or directed—Training Day, Harsh Times, and now Street Kings—offer a strong cinematic punch, a reminder that no matter how many times Hollywood tries to portray itself as an idyllic oasis of glittery movie stars and palm-lined boulevards, LA has always been an American city like any other, with crime and discontent roiling beneath the surface. Ayer's LA is an intoxicating setting, and it'd be all the more so if his movies weren't so awful.
Okay, "awful" might be too harsh: Like Ayer's forgotten Harsh Times (2005)— which featured Christian Bale as a shell-shocked veteran stumbling and shooting his way around Los Angeles—Street Kings isn't terrible, it's just preposterous and hilarious. (I'm pretty sure both are unintentional.) Street Kings is the sort of movie that expects us to buy that Keanu Reeves is a hard-boiled vice cop, one who sleeps with a gun under his pillow in an apartment filled with Budweiser empties, who preps for his undercover work by downing mini-bottles of vodka and glaring sullenly at everything around him. It's the sort of movie that contains the following lines of dialogue, delivered, almost always, at a melodramatic fever pitch:
• "Stay with me, partner!"
• "Do the department a favor and wash your mouth out... with buckshot."
• "Sarge, we can get these guys!"
• "He was born without the fear gene."
• "Shouldn't we roll with backup?" "Fuck backup!"
• "Everything I touch dies."
Street Kings is also the sort of movie where Jay Mohr, as one of Keanu's fellow cops, sports a mustache stolen from Reno 911!; where the bad guy is evident from the first frame he appears in (yet waits until an awkward, final-reel plot twist to reveal himself); and where bad-boy cop Keanu repeatedly hits rapper/actor The Game in the head with a phone book. (The Game just seems kind of annoyed with the way Keanu keeps clubbing him with the Yellow Pages, but maybe that's because he's the only one in the scene who realizes how goofy it all looks.)
Long story short: Angry and nihilistic after losing his wife, Detective Tom Ludlow (Reeves) gets boozed up and busts LA's worst crooks, putting himself in danger time and time again, due either to untreated depression or the tragic birth defect that denied him a fear gene. Ludlow's boss, Captain Jack Wander (Forest Whitaker) is content to let Ludlow operate on the fringes, covering up his illegal tactics and risky shortcuts. But then shit hits the fan: The LAPD's internal investigator (Hugh Laurie) starts sniffing around, and Ludlow finds himself in an even trickier situation than before—suddenly, everyone seems like a rat, and everyone's trying to take Ludlow down. Somehow, Common and Cedric the Entertainer and The Game all get involved, and before long, Street Kings is a magnificent, dumb, and bewildering clusterfuck of corrupt cops, double-crosses, and even more teeny-tiny bottles of vodka. Think Miami Vice minus the self-conscious cool, or The Departed minus the smarts, and you'll have a pretty good idea what to expect from Street Kings (which, oddly, took three people to write, not including a story credit by crime writer James Ellroy). Overall, it's a thoroughly weird experience: There's a competent cast, some great cinematography, and a killer setting, but all of those things are utterly dependent on Ayer—a writer/director who makes it impossible to tell if he's earnestly trying to make good work, or if this is all an elaborate, sarcastic joke. It'd almost be a relief if it were the latter.