'Training Day' with training wheels

Posted: Thursday, April 10, 2008

Keanu Reeves tries his best to channel Denzel and Clint in "Street Kings," a wild and woolly if also slack and silly bad-cops-kill-other-bad-cops thriller. It's "Training Day" with training wheels, as Reeves sheds his "dude"-ness for a little ultra-violence, playing a racist cop-executioner, a man who always gets his man. And then shoots his man.

Courtesy Of Regency Enterprises
Courtesy Of Regency Enterprises

For an intriguing first 20 minutes or so, that's who Tom Ludlow seems to be in this hard-boiled James Ellroy adaptation. He's a loose cannon, a trigger-happy jerk all too quick with the racist putdown. He insults some Korean thugs by tossing a Japanese greeting at them.

"Your eyes look like apostrophes, you dress white, you talk black, you drive like Jews," he blurts.

Ludlow is in the sights of LAPD's Internal Affairs Dept., in the person of smirking Hugh Laurie. But his commander (Forest Whitaker) and brothers in "the unit" (Jay Mohr, John Corbett, among them) are quick to reassure him.

"We've got your back."

But we're wise. They say it with such menace they can't be serious.

Next thing you know, Ludlow is mixed up in a shoot-out with a squealer-cop that he wanted dead. The cover-up that envelopes him tells Ludlow that there's a lot more to this than just keeping this "last of the ghetto gunslingers" out of jail.

Ellroy, "the demon dog of American crime fiction," provides a lot of over-the-top dialogue for what appears to be every character actor in LA to mutter. Everyone from Human Torch Chris Evans (as a reluctant partner) to Cedric the Entertainer (badly cast as a junkie-stoolie), Rappers Common and The Game and Naomie Harris of "Pirates of the Caribbean" (as a widow) takes a turn in front of director David Ayer's camera.

Not everybody can manage Oscar winner Forest Whitaker's trick of saying lines like "You went face to face with evil, and won," or "Wash your mouth out with buckshot," with a straight face.

Especially Reeves.

"It is what it looks like," he tries to growl. "It doesn't matter what happens. It's how we write it up."

Ayer directed "Harsh Times," an earlier unsuccessful attempt at copying "Training Day" with Christian Bale in the Denzel Washington role. Here, he and the screenwriters pulls their punches, turning Ludlow into a redeemable killer, a bad cop who may have a righteous streak within him.

Ellroy, of "L.A. Confidential," was probably the right writer to try and seal this deal about corrupt cops on the trail of other corrupt cops, but Reeves is in way over his head. The editor doesn't do him any favors, either. Every Ludlow scene begins with Reeves turning his head, stage left, in the same lazy "I'm thinking of what to say" gesture. It's like David Caruso's endless reliance on sunglasses. Do it enough and we notice. And laugh.

Cop movie cliches? How about "the cop who drinks while driving" (always vodka) or the cop's "car with character" (a coal-black Dodge Charger SRT8)? The chases are straight out of Keanu's first cop picture, "Point Break," manic and on foot, crashing through fences and sprinting through South Central living rooms.

The movie's antipathy for cops is palpable, their easy access to corrupting money and drugs, their ability to re-write history because they have a badge and a gun. Such power! They could be - dare I say it? - movie critics.

"It doesn't matter what happens. It's how we write it up."

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