Roiling with racial and ethnic slurs (Asians and blacks get the brunt of it, but nobody's spared) and alive with the crazy-quilt cacophony that is L.A. - the barrios, Korea Town, Watts, the dusty hilltops, the scuzzy mini-malls - Street Kings comes by way of mystery scribe James Ellroy (story and screenplay) and David Ayer, the Training Day writer taking his second stab at directing. (His first, Harsh Times, also set in L.A., with Christian Bale as a self-destructive Army vet, is well worth checking out.)
Street Kings, like Ellroy's and Ayer's aforementioned credits, delves into the inner workings of the L.A.P.D. - the maverick detectives, the culture of racism and corruption, the notion of loyalty over honesty. It's a twisted in-joke that, at the funeral of a fallen officer, the chief of police is played by Daryl Gates - the city's real ex-police commissioner, who long reigned over a notoriously unscrupulous department.
Street Kings is a good, compelling, violent picture, but it has its flaws, not the least of which is the casting of Reeves and Whitaker. These guys are actors, yes, and they're up for the job - and it's never hard to watch them - but they're gentle souls, too, you can see it in their eyes. The profane, possessed, take-no-prisoners attitudes they're required to take, to inhabit, don't come easy for either man.
There's also a familiar template at the heart of Street Kings - familiar to anyone who's read Ellroy's L.A. Confidential, or seen Curtis Hanson's rippingingly good film version. And Hugh Laurie, in a key supporting role as an Internal Affairs officer on Ludlow's and Wander's case, seems stuck in his TV medico House shtick; it was probably a bad idea to have Laurie's first scene set in a hospital, snapping wise to a bed-bound patient.
But much of the casting is dead-on, from Cedric the Entertainer as a street dealer to Jay Mohr as a slimy cop and Chris Evans as an earnest rookie who saddles up with Reeves' Ludlow for an ill-fated ride.
Street Kings *** (out of four stars)
Directed by David Ayer. With Keanu Reeves, Forest Whitaker, Chris Evans, Hugh Laurie, Cedric the Entertainer, Martha Higareda and Jay Mohr. Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 47 mins.
Parent's guide: R (violence, profanity, drugs, adult themes)
Playing at: Area theaters
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.