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The Daily Utah Chronicle

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Street Kings’ follows Ayer’s cookie cut style

By Sam Potter

Spring just wouldn’t be complete without a David Ayer movie. Responsible for histrionic displays of machismo such as “Training Day,” “Dark Blue,” “The Fast and the Furious” and “S.W.A.T.,” Ayer has come to embody everything that is phony and superficial about cop drama. His characters always seem to say and do the right thing at the perfect time, disposing of their enemies with a supermodel smile and a quip so self-consciously clever, it’s tired before they’ve finished uttering it.

“Street Kings,” the latest addition to Ayer’s oeuvre, does little to increase Ayer’s credibility. For starters, “Kings” has three strikes against it going in: Keanu Reeves, Forest Whitaker and Jay Mohr. Reeves stars as LAPD cop Tom Ludlow, a veteran who struggles to cope with his existence after the bizarre death of his wife. He is the shining star of the police force’s vice squad, run by Capt. Jack Wander (Whitaker). The group has become accustomed to running business by its own rules, willing to bend or break the law if it means a greater good can be accomplished.

After a highly dangerous yet successful sting operation lands Ludlow in the media spotlight, Wander and the squad receive a huge boost of credibility. Wander is ecstatic, and he boasts that a chief of police position is soon to be his. But things soon become complicated when internal affairs come knocking, lead by the pugnacious Captain James Briggs (Hugh Laurie).

Also mucking the waters is Ludlow’s former partner, Terry Washington (Terry Crews), who might or might not be ratting out the vice squad and might or might not be a dirty cop who is helping the street boys deal dope. When Ludlow spots Washington entering a gas station followed by two gangsters, he follows, hoping to catch Washington in the act. When the thugs instead gun down Washington, Ludlow narrowly escapes and soon finds his loyalties embroiled in a tug-of-war between Wander and Briggs.

Confused yet?

The finer details of the labyrinthine plot zip by with little concern for explanation other than scenes of speedy exposition made more obtuse by dialogue that is almost impenetrably hip with “police speak.” It doesn’t really matter, though, as the story beats soon become obvious for anyone who’s seen an episode of “Law and Order,” “CSI,” “NYPD Blue” or any cop drama of the past 20 years. Those shows all have accomplished what “Street Kings” does in a better and more believable fashion. The real entertainment value in “Kings” comes down to whether you enjoy the buffoonery on display by Reeves and Whitaker (Mohr and Laurie aren’t that fantastic, either).

Both Reeves and Whitaker are actors with limited ranges and require a deft directorial hand to reign in their excesses and steer clear of their weaknesses. Ayer seems to know only one tone — the cocky over-confidence that permeated and stunk up “The Fast and the Furious” and “S.W.A.T.” Characters in an Ayer movie aren’t real people — they’re the swagger and glamour of a sports star in a Nike or Reebok ad, not the talented yet flawed athlete interviewed off of the court.

The only bright spots in the film come from the supporting players. Chris Evans proves he’s much more than a pretty face with another nice performance, a dose of reality alongside a gaggle of caricatures. Naomie Harris and Martha Higareda do a nice job in the thankless roles of the grieving women.

To be fair, the biggest offenders are the authors of this pulp. Crime novelist James Ellroy tries to add some juice to the original script penned by scribes Kurt Wimmer (“Ultraviolet,” “The Thomas Crown Affair”) and newcomer Jamie Moss, but it’s not enough. If anything, Ellroy succeeds in retreading ground he’s already made more competently.

The story ultimately comes off as the ugly offspring of two of both Ellroy’s and Ayer’s best movies, “L.A. Confidential” and “Training Day.” Yet the film lacks the spark and vulnerability of both those movies. Where characters such as Bud White of “Confidential” and Ethan Hawke’s Jake in “Traning Day” were complex mixes of unhinged masculinity and emotional frailty, the boys in “Kings” talk in polished one-liners and act as if they’ve rehearsed every step they take.

For a movie that claims to be a gritty view into the crime and moral ambiguity that haunts the streets of Los Angeles, it could have at least adhered to one of the most time-honored of urban sayings: Keep it real.

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“Street Kings”Fox Searchlight PicturesWritten by James Ellroy, Kurt Wimmer and Jamie MossDirected by David AyerStarring Keanu Reeves, Forrest Whitaker, Hugh Laurie, Chris Evans and Jay MohrRated R/109 MinutesTwo out of four stars

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