I feel compelled to stress that Forest Whitaker, 2007 Oscar winner for "Last King of Scotland," is NOT Cuba Gooding, Jr.
Much like Gooding, Whitaker has never been known for his role selection. More often than not, the widely respected Whitaker has found himself listed in reviews as one of the few bright spots in an otherwise disappointing film.
Unlike Gooding, however, Whitaker is actually known as a gifted actor and, again unlike Gooding, virtually no one questioned the validity of his Oscar win.
Seriously, after having such Gooding debacles as "Radio" and "Boat Trip," haven't we pretty much concluded that the congenial actor was basically painting a broad portrait of himself in "Jerry Maguire?"
Entertaining? Sure. Oscar worthy? Not quite.
I'd hoped, however, that after winning the 2007 Oscar for his masterful performance as Idi Amin Whitaker might be more inclined to steer away from the multitude of gritty police dramas that seem to dominate his cinematic resume.
No such luck.
First, of course, there was "Vantage Point." Sure, it was a decent flick. Really, though, was it the kind of film you follow up an Oscar with?
Now, Whitaker co-stars with Keanu Reeves in "Street Kings," the latest film from director David Ayer (screenwriter, "S.W.A.T." and "Training Day"). "Street Kings" is, you guessed it, a gritty police drama.
In "Street Kings," Detective Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves) is a hard-drinking cop struggling to get over the death of his wife. Ludlow prefers the "shoot first, who cares about the questions" method of police work, a methodology that seems just fine with his almost as shady boss, Captain Wander (Forest Whitaker). His dirty methods catch the eye of the chief of Internal Affairs (Hugh Laurie, "House"), and he falls into deeper trouble after a couple of thugs manage to off a fellow cop right as he and Ludlow were preparing to get into it.
Based upon a novel by James Ellroy ("L.A. Confidential"), one gets the feeling that "Street Kings" may have been a decent flick had Ellroy been trusted to write the script. While Ellroy does have a screenwriting credit here, it's clear that Kurt Wimmer ("Ultraviolet," "Sphere") wiped out the script's street cred and left in its place a hyped up street drama filled with lots of style but little in the way of substance.
While it's tempting to compare Reeves' performance here to that of his cop in "Speed," truth be told Reeves more resembles the darker, meaner abusive boyfriend he played in the underrated "The Gift." While it's doubtful Reeves will ever find himself holding up that golden statuette, roles like Tom Ludlow do allow him to flex his acting muscles and play against type just a bit.
Whitaker, on the other hand, could pull off a role like Captain Wander in his sleep. Fortunately, Whitaker hardly ever phones in a performance and even in a role we've seen him do before he manages to build an intriguing, sympathetic character among a sea of characters who are more bad than good.
"Street Kings" works better when the supporting players are front and center, most notably Martha Higareda as a sexy nurse with an interest in Ludlow and the buddy bad-cop team of John Corbett ("My Big Fat Greek Wedding") and Jay Mohr (TV's "Ghost Whisperer").
Speaking of phoned in performances, however, Hugh Laurie's internal affairs chief feels like only a slight variation on Dr. House, and Chris Evans, Ludlow's partner in the latter half of the film, seems to be modeling himself after some of Reeves' early wooden performances.
Fans of hardcore action flicks may find themselves able to look past the many plot holes and utter predictability of "Street Kings." The film is nearly relentless in its action, and the energy stays on overdrive so much that one might suspect the filmmaker had to keep the pace going over 50 mph or the set would blow up.
Stylish yet predictable and predictable while constantly exciting, "Street Kings" garners a modest recommendation largely on the basis of a better than usual performance from Reeves, strong supporting players and Ayer's free-for-all pacing that keeps the film and audience hopping even when absolutely nothing makes sense.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic