STREET KINGS is a disturbing examination of corruption, greed, bribery, and murder within the Los Angeles Police Department. Written originally by crime-writer James Ellroy after the Rodney King uprisings in Los Angeles, it was re-conceptualized in a contemporary setting. Producer Lucas Foster states, “We stuck to our guns and wanted to make a movie for adults so that we could have the freedom to be edgy and tell the truth, or at least our perception of the truth, about what it is like to be a cop in Los Angeles.”
Whether what is seen on the screen is truth or the writer’s “perception of truth,” it is disturbing to think that such extreme agendas are taking place within a city police force whose job is to enforce the rule of law. STREET KINGS presents its leading character, Tom Ludlow (played by Keanu Reeves), as a cop who starts out with good and righteous intentions, but goes in the wrong direction as his shooting skills are, for all intents and purposes, prostituted by his corrupt captain and mentor, Captain Jack Wender (played by Forest Whitaker). In fact the relationship between Ludlow and Wender is reminiscent of the relationship between “Nicolas” and Idi Amin in THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND. Ludlow is affirmed and treated like a pet by the arrogant Captain Wender. Oddly enough, the members of his Ad Vice team in the police department call him “King Wender.” The movie uses Ludlow to represent the men who keep the night watch, dealing with the evils of the night in order to keep the public safe, at whatever cost, even the vigilante execution of criminals.
STREET KINGS opens as a hungover Tom Ludlow downs a few airline bottles of vodka and meets two Asian criminals for an arms exchange deal in a parking lot. The criminals viciously beat him and leave him in the lot. Next thing we know, Ludlow breaks into a house and kills the same two men in a very graphic and gruesome scene. The first scene alone has enough obscenities and profanities to justify an extreme warning.
Ludlow then, hearing some whimpers, discovers two missing Asian teens gagged and bound within a small closet, which leads the viewer to guess that Ludlow must be a cop. But, why did he just murder these men without warning?
When the police arrive on the scene to investigate, Captain Wender hurries Ludlow into a private area and praises his handling of the situation. He knows that Ludlow will be looked upon as a hero for saving these victims of sex slave trafficking and gives him instructions for re-telling the events. Ludlow tampers with the evidence to make it look like he killed them in self-defense.
Now, we see that this cop is killing criminals – and his boss is justifying it. Outside the house, a black cop, Ludlow’s ex-partner, Terrance Washington (played by former football star, Terry Crews), boldly confronts Ludlow. There is a riff between the two, and it is obvious that Washington is trying to expose Ludlow.
Because Ludlow has been drinking, Captain “King” Wender sends him directly to the hospital to avoid the scrutiny of an investigation. At the hospital, he sees his nurse girlfriend, Grace Garcia (played by Martha Higareda). Popping out from behind the curtain appears Captain James Biggs (Hugh Laurie of HOUSE fame), who introduces himself as someone in the “insurance business.” After Biggs asks, “You did shoot them in self-defense,” it becomes obvious that he has an agenda of his own.
At a celebratory party over Ludlow’s heroic rescue of the teenagers (and the headlines praising the police department), discussion ensues around Terrance Washington’s meetings with Captain Biggs. Apparently, Washington has found redemption in the Christian Church and wants to do the right thing by exposing Wedner’s corruption to the Captain. Everyone at the table (except for Ludlow) seems to know that Washington is “giving him up” to Biggs.
Pumping himself full of more vodka mini bottles, Ludlow follows Washington to a liquor store. While getting out of the car, he sees two gunmen armed with machine guns get out of another car. Ludlow goes into the store to warn Washington of the danger, but Washington thinks he is there to kill him. He starts a fight. The armed men burst into the store, gun down the store clerk, and then move down the aisles firing at every shelf. They reach Washington, firing 18 rounds into him, while Ludlow tries to shoot from the next aisle. One of his shots hits Washington’s already bullet-ridden body. The gunmen leave, and Ludlow rushes to Washington to help.
When Captain Wender arrives, he takes Ludlow into the back room to watch the hidden store DVD recording, which shows Ludlow fighting with Washington prior to the murders. Wender concocts a lie to cover up the truth. Again, Ludlow and Wender are tampering with evidence as Wender removes the DVD and gives it to Ludlow to destroy. “After all,” one of the Ad Vice team says, “we’re the police. It’s all about how we write it up.”
From this point, Ludlow is forced into a desk job for the sake of appearances. He wants to follow up on the murder of Washington, but Wender and his teammates warn him to stay out of it. This makes the entire Ad Vice group seem suspect. But, he begins to pursue the truth, aided by his new sidekick, rookie Detective Paul Diskant (Chris Evans of THE FANTASTIC FOUR). Together, they infiltrate the drug ghettos of L.A., looking for the whereabouts of two drug dealers who seem to be the killers. Eventually, to save himself, Ludlow is pitted against his corrupt boss, but he finds that fighting corruption in the police force is a never-ending struggle.
STREET KINGS is a well-constructed police drama, which gives a painfully realistic portrayal of a world that none of us should ever hope to see. It is dark. It is dirty. It is bloody. The language is lewd and filthy. It is not a film for the squeamish due to the extreme violence, and the language is extremely offensive. The film does give voice, however, to a big frustration of law enforcement – that the hardened criminals are often let back out on the streets to kill, steal and destroy again. The alternative, according to Captain “King” Wender, is “Go huntin’. Have a good time. Do what you do. But you cannot bring them in. Do it the old way and settle it out there.”
In the end, corruption and vigilante justice seem endemic to the urban policeman’s job. Thus, the Christian cop is ultimately murdered, and the protagonist finds that there is still corruption in the police force. Along with the violence and extreme foul language, this dark humanist, and perhaps even anti-American worldview render STREET KINGS excessive.
(HH, AP, B, C, LLL, VVV, N, AA, DD, M) Dark, humanist, somewhat anti-American worldview of Los Angeles police where corruption seems to be endemic to the police force, despite the efforts of two police officers to clean it up, one of whom is the ex-partner of the protagonist and apparently found redemption in the Christian Church but who is killed by two of the bad cops; at least 65 obscenities and 12 to 15 mostly strong profanities; very strong violence includes machine gun killings with disfigurements, one man shot up while on toilet, fighting, drug dealer caught in barbed wire, graphic shot of two burned corpses in shallow grave, murder of police officers, and gunshot wounds to throat, severing artery; no sex scenes but sex slave trafficking victims found in hidden closet and light kissing; upper male nudity with man in towel and man killed with pants down while on toilet; lead character is alcoholic and drinks airline bottles of vodka; some smoking, but story is about police vice squad and drug lords in Los Angeles; and, vigilante killings by police, blackmail, corruption, and bribery.
STREET KINGS stars Keanu Reeves as Tom Ludlow, a veteran vice cop with a penchant for executing criminals. Ludlow finds himself accused in the machine gun killing of another officer, his ex-partner who had found redemption in the Christian Church and was going to testify against police corruption. This pits Ludlow against his own corrupt boss, played by Forest Whitaker, and the very department that honored him as a hero.
STREET KINGS is a gritty, violent police drama, with very strong foul language and graphic violence. It is a troubling look at the darkest side of a power hungry police captain and his crew. While the filmmakers consider the movie to have a theme of redemption, true redemption is only found through Jesus Christ. Tom Ludlow comes to understand he has been a pawn in the hands of a dirty cop, but killing the dirty cop just like he killed other criminals, does not redeem him. Also, though his ex-partner seems to have found redemption in Jesus, he is killed by the corrupt officers he is trying to expose. Thus, the movie seems to say that corruption is endemic among urban policemen.