David Ayer's 'Harsh Times' Get Harsher

Maui Time | April 7, 2008
Based on James Ellroy's novel, Street Kings is set in LA's blood-soaked streets, traversed by widowed LAPD veteran Detective Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves) whose carte blanche methods of obliterating suspects with his service revolver are threatened when his former partner Terrence Washington turns Internal Affairs informant. Accustomed to having his violent "missions" smoothed over with the help of Captain Wander (Forest Whitaker), Tom thumbs his nose at the inclosing IA officers, in order to find the gunmen responsible for shooting Washington down during a convenience store heist. A combination of implausible plot-points, and the miscasting of television's Hugh Laurie as Internal Affairs chief Captain Biggs, hampers a convoluted crime thriller that is nonetheless entertaining for its grotesque action sequences.

Writer/director David Ayer made a splash with his Bad Lieutenant-inspired script for Training Day. It was a thoroughly modern version of a corrupt police mentality that Americans continue to see reflected in the newspapers. Unarmed suspects get shot with 50 bullets, and cops go free after lip service trials allow communities to wring out their tears before moping away with little sense of justice being served. It's this dire state of affairs that Ayer addresses with a comic perversion that views cops and criminals as not just the same brand of monster, but part of the same entity.

From the looks of Tom Ludlow's squalid apartment, you'd never guess that he was once married. It makes sense that his wife died while committing an act of adultery because this isn't the kind of guy to make a woman feel safe and secure. He's a career cop concerned with keeping his gun clean for its perpetual use. And if Tom's familiarity with racist viewpoints allows him to verbally belittle every Tyrone, Ernesto, Nam, and Ethan he comes into contact with, so much the better. Whether or not he's really a racist at heart is beside the point. Like Denzel Washington's character in Training Day, Keanu Reeves' Tom Ludlow exists to strategically execute bad guys who, like him, frequently wear body armor and are armed to the teeth. He doesn't have any grand aspirations beyond humiliating, injuring, and killing criminals with impunity.

There's shock value in the ripe dialogue between Tom and the three Korean crooks attempting to purchase a machine gun from him in a parking lot deal that leaves Tom bloodied on the ground -- his car and gun taken in exchange for his salty prattle. But Tom's bruises are a small price to pay for him to follow the suspects to their fetish-fueled cathouse. What follows is a one-man guts-and-glory mission that leaves brain matter splattered on walls and pints of oozing blood pooled on the floor. The subtext here is that you don't have to look to Iraq to witness combat-style assaults.

Street Kings gets a tonal shake-up from its mix of surprise casting for secondary characters. Talent typically thought of for their comedic skills hold their own, with the exception of Hugh Laurie, whose television persona follows him like a vile odor. Jay Mohr (Are We There Yet?), Terry Crews (Norbit), and Cedric "The Entertainer" all give credible dramatic performances in plot-mapping roles that help mask the film's glaring disregard for realism.

However, if Street Kings seems overtly alienated from reality, it serves to make a backhanded point about the surreal nature of police-committed massacres like New York's Amadou Diallo case, and the recent murder of Sean Bell. That's not to say that the film is pro or con on either side of the men in blue, merely that we are living in a time of heightened violence that taunts all logic. The film's chain of brutal climax sequences blurs so many lines that you come away from it believing that anarchy in the streets is just a dirty little byproduct of democracy. Nobody eats "freedom fries" anymore.

Rated R, 107 mins. (B-)

Maui Time

Maui Time Weekly provides insightful analysis and in depth reporting. We believe some issues are so important they require thoughtful consideration. We are not a “paper of record”—a daily journal of government meetings, ribbon-cuttings and corporate announcements. We decide what’s...
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