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Originally published Friday, April 11, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

"Street Kings" is a James Ellroy story of corrupt, infighting L.A. cops

A few minutes in, "Street Kings" seems like warmed-over James Ellroy: corrupt, infighting L. A. cops; racism; a self-destructive "hero"...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Movie review 2 stars

"Street Kings," with Keanu Reeves, Forest Whitaker, Hugh Laurie, Chris Evans. Directed by David Ayer, from a screenplay by James Ellroy, Kurt Wimmer and Jamie Moss. 107 minutes. Rated R for strong violence and pervasive language. Several theaters.

A few minutes in, "Street Kings" seems like warmed-over James Ellroy: corrupt, infighting L.A. cops; racism; a self-destructive "hero" half a step ahead of doom; adversaries teaming up ...

Hang on, it is an Ellroy story — by way of director David Ayer ("Harsh Times," the script for "Training Day") — but it's no "L.A. Confidential." The potential match made in crime heaven has some admirably gritty action but suffers from first-degree obviousness and some bad dialogue that's especially painful when it comes out of Keanu Reeves.

Looking slightly puffy, Reeves plays alcoholic widower Tom Ludlow, the point man in a kind of "Magnum Force" police unit. He blows away a houseful of scum who've kidnapped two girls, then his captain and mentor, Wander (Forest Whitaker), fixes the crime scene and Ludlow's story to make everything look clean. This is the brotherhood of violent men who sidestep the red tape and shyster lawyers to make the bad guys go away, and it's a promising high-octane start.

But Ludlow's resentful ex-partner, Washington (Terry Crews), is ratting him out to Internal Affairs Capt. Biggs (Hugh Laurie, "House"). So when Ludlow goes to confront Biggs and a couple of gangbangers kill him in a convenience-store hit, Ludlow's under suspicion — and the story goes south.

Instead of lying low and letting his squad clean up his tracks, "guided missile" Ludlow can't stomach it. He teams with the naive adversary investigating him and the case — Chris Evans, the Human Torch in the "Fantastic Four" flicks — to ruthlessly hunt the killers.

The thrilling chases, realistic gunplay (and wounds) and phone-book beating don't distract from the fact that it's blatantly obvious where the trail is leading and who the real bad guys are right from the outset. It's hardly subtle that Wander and the rest of his crew — John Corbett, Jay Mohr and Amaury Nolasco ("Prison Break") — keep telling him to drop it.

Is it a sloppy script, or that Ludlow is so stupid? By the time his nurse girlfriend bandages a gunshot wound on his arm without even bothering to clean it, everyone in the movie seems a little stupid. Also, a perfunctory party scene with all of Wander's men and their women only points to how neglected the brother-cops and their relationships are.

The interesting racism seed planted at the beginning never amounts to anything, either. Ellroy — responsible for the story and sharing screenplay credit — is the rare writer who doesn't pussyfoot around that language, and there's a great line that earns Ludlow a beating after he misidentifies an Asian.

But the rest of the movie is riddled with bad dialogue. "Tom is a damn fine cop. He bleeds blue." Ugh. "Why can't you have a normal life like everyone else?" Argh. And this from Reeves to the girlfriend: "This thing you want, that you think you want, you don't want." Nope, still can't act.

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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