Sunday, August 29, 2010

Street Kings

After he grew out of his Bill & Ted phase, Keanu Reeves pretty much made a career out of being miscast. He's gotten a reputation as the guy the studios saddle filmmakers with so they can have a bankable name on the poster. I think it started with his role as Jonathan Harker in Bram Stoker's Dracula. In Keanu's defense, that part has a long tradition of sucking. It's been played boringly by dozens of actors over the course of nearly a century, but never with a British accent that sounded like the San Dimas High School drama club's production of A Christmas Carol.

Then Keanu started utilizing his bland but strangely charismatic demeanor in action roles, where he basically functions as a blank canvas on which filmmakers and audiences alike can project pretty much whatever they want. Whether he's playing an idealistic adrenaline junkie (Point Break, Speed) or a superpowered messiah (The Matrix), he maintains the same facial expression and lets the context surrounding him do all the heavy lifting. He's sort of like C-3PO, who can look sad, scared, or happy depending on what's going on around him, even though his face is just an unmovable mask.

Nowadays, Keanu keeps trying to go against his dopey but sweet persona by trying to play cynical tough guys without ever really pulling it off. (I do think he was surprisingly intimidating as a redneck wifebeater in The Gift, though.) But somehow, even though you're never excited to see Keanu cast in anything (The Day the Earth Stood Still? Really?), and he's never really all that good, he still almost never ruins the final product. Eventually, you kind of have to respect the guy. He seems like a decent dude, and he always gives every role his best shot. That's probably why he's stuck around a lot longer than all the other prettyboy actors of his generation. I mean, have you seen much of Judd Nelson lately?

Which brings us to Street Kings, a halfway decent crime thriller that pretty much nobody saw. This is a different role for Keanu because he's trying to do the whole "burned-out detective on the ragged edge" thing, so it looks like he put on a little weight and tried to make his perpetual babyface sag a little. Even though this is really more of a Kiefer part than a Keanu part, he puts his back into it and manages to come off slightly more badass than usual. You still spend most of the movie wishing that they'd cast Tom Jane or somebody like that, but by the end, Keanu's inherent naiveté actually works for the character, who turns out to be not as cynical as he thinks he is. Unlike, say, Constantine, I can see why they went the Keanu route on this one.

Street Kings is based on a James Ellroy story, so it's obviously about dirty L.A. cops. And even if you didn't know that, you'd figure it out in the first 30 seconds, because the first thing Keanu does after he wakes up in the morning is grab his pistol and puke. Then puts on an ugly shirt and goes to the liquor store for three travel-sized bottles of vodka. Then he tries to sell a .50-cal Army surplus machine gun to a couple of Korean gangbangers who like to use the N-word in wildly inapt ways. Then he follows them back to their crib and kills them and their entire gang. He doesn't have a warrant or identify himself as a cop or anything. He just kicks the door in and starts shooting. The first two guys, one of them's just sitting at the dinner table and the other one's taking a shit. The next two try shooting back, but it doesn't work. Like all of the movie's gunfights, it's shot economically with an eye toward geography, and the squibs are nice and squishy.

So then, right when you've pretty much decided that this dude is just a monster with a badge, he opens a secret passageway and rescues two little girls in a cage. So now we don't know what to think. Sure, he violated those gangbangers' civil rights by murdering them without a warrant, but they were also evil kidnapping scum. The movie isn't really interested in exploring the theme of ends justifying the means in any kind of meaningful way, but it provides enough character development to keep the story moving in between badass beats.

You find out in the next scene that Keanu is basically a hitman for the cops. His boss, Forest Whitaker, tells him who to kill, then cleans up the mess afterward. But then Keanu's ex-partner tries to rat him out to Internal Affairs, represented by Hugh Laurie, the guy from House, which is the TV version of that old horror movie from the eighties, only set in a hospital. Which is not a house, in my opinion. Fucking TV people screw everything up. Anyway, then the partner gets shot more times than Robocop, and everyone in the whole world except for Keanu knows that Forest Whitaker ordered it. So he's got to deal with his guilty conscience and get to the bottom of the whole thing by shooting a whole bunch of people. Which he does, very satisfyingly.

Shit, man, I wish I had more to say about Street Kings, but it kind of is what is. It's the kind of down-and-dirty little shoot-'em-up that the marketing people like to call "gritty" even though that word has been ground down to a nub by overuse and thus has no meaning anymore. If you like that kind of movie, then this is the kind of movie you'll like. The plot is never the slightest bit believable, but the action is violent and exciting and the cast is interesting (Jay Mohr, Chris Evans, John Corbett, Cedric the Entertainer, The Game, and Common, who, despite being a crunchy granola pussyfag manages to be twice as badass as The Game, a real-life Blood with a face covered with prison tattoos). And there are some good poetically hard-boiled lines, like when Forest Whitaker describes Keanu's role in the police force by saying, "You're the tip of the fuckin' spear." And you get to see Neo fight Ghost Dog, so if that sounds up your alley, you should probably rent it or something.

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