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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Street Kings

Whatever happened to hobos? When I first saw that the Essex Cinemas was showing a movie called Street Kings I immediately thought about hobos. Seriously. Who were more deserving of the title than they? Hobos ruled when I was a kid. It seemed like they were everywhere. On tv, Red Skelton had a hit show featuring his character Freddie the Freeloader, a proud hobo if ever there was one. He made being a bum look positively fun and something to aspire to. What kid didn’t want to wear the grubbiest hand-me-down clothes with a rope belt and a stick with a handkerchief tied to the end as fashion accessories making up the perfect Halloween costume? The call of the road was looked on as something to be admired. Call it “Wagon Train” syndrome. Maybe it was a “West Coast-thing” but in California in the 1970s, the free spirit movement remained strong and on more than one occasion, my mother answered our back door and found a scruffy looking stranger begging for a meal, an opportunity to earn a little money doing some yard work, or maybe just hoping she’d have an old coat of my father’s she’d be willing to part with. Okay, so she’d usually spray them with mace and scream “damned hippie freak,” but that’s because they weren’t ‘hobo’ enough. If we lived near the railroad tracks I’m sure she’d have been kinder.

Hobos were definitely cool back then, before they became a social issue and ended up with the
title “homeless” and we all learned that it wasn’t so much fun to live outside in the winter and eat out of dumpsters or worse. Suddenly the idea of being a hobo wasn’t nearly as glamorous as it seemed on tv. Of course, back when the whole “homeless” label first started, there wasn’t much education about shelters and programs for people without places to live, so I found myself thinking about what it would be like to be a hobo in someplace like Vermont and that didn’t seem appealing at all. Black flies in the summer and blue balls in the winter. I imagined that if I was one of those mysterious hobos of Vermont, I’d give up being a “King (well, Queen) of the Road” or Street or anywhere else and find it best to hop a freight to warmer climes ~ Florida, Texas, or California, someplace that offered a more moderate climate to live in while being on hard times.

One thing I’d want to do beforehand, however, would be check out the 4-1-1 on the local gendarmes before I decided on a place to settle. I mean, geez, how many hundreds of movies about dirty cops have been made that take place with palm trees in the background. You’d think every policeman in California was part of a vast conspiracy of some kind with murder and drugs on their minds if you believed what the Hollywood studios crank out year after year.

This week’s
Street Kings is another example. In the movie, based on a novel by James Elmore (who also co-wrote the screenplay along with Kurt Wimmer and Jamie Moss), Keanu Reeves (The Lake House) plays Detective Tom Ludlow, a cop with a long history of working outside the perimeters of the law itself. This is okay by his boss, Captain Jack Wander (Forest Whitaker; Vantage Point), because Ludlow cleans up a lot of high-profile crime and makes their unit (and the Captain) look terrific, an important point for him since the Captain is lobbying hard for a promotion to Chief of Police for all of Los Angeles County.

Ludlow faces two problems. His unit’s other officers are not happy with his refusal to work as a team member and then share the glory of his outrageous antics’ success as part of the team’s effort when stories are reported in the press: he also has to deal with Internal Affairs, which has assigned an acerbic officer, Captain James Biggs (Hugh Laurie; tv’s “House”) to investigate his on-going actions to make sure Ludlow “only colors within the lines.”

Color, as a matter of fact, plays a big part in the tension within Street Kings as Ludlow has barely maintained civility with his ex-partner, Detective Terrence Washington (Terry Crews; tv’s “Everybody Hates Chris”), who is African American. Ludlow is called a racist on more than one occasion, a fact he doesn’t deny, and when Washington is murdered in Ludlow’s presence, it is captured on video tape and ends up looking like Ludlow arranged a hit on his enemy rather than being the coincidence it actually was.

This is just the jump-start to the actual action/mystery/suspense story of
Street Kings. What follows is the saga of Ludlow trying to prove his innocence in the murder even though the Department has already made it clear they are covering up his murder of Washington as if it didn’t happen. The more he wants to find out why the Department is so quick to dismiss this killing and insist he not to pursue the real killers, the more Ludlow finds himself at risk as well as those who have any piece of information who might be able to help him discover the truth.

Elmore has always been known for his powerhouse writing (L.A. Confidential; The Black Dahlia), and he does a great job weaving an intricate tale of corruption and conflict that will have the viewer (this one, anyway) guessing along with Ludlow just who you can trust at every turn. Is it the wet-behind-the-ears Detective Paul Diskant (Chris Evans; Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer), who seems too by-the-book to do what needs to be done, yet appears almost way too-eager to partner up with Ludlow when the heat is on. Then there is Washington’s widow, Linda (Naomie Harris; Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World's End), who has the key piece of evidence that could easily ruin Ludlow’s career if she decided to use it. There’s also the colorful informer, Scribbles (Cedric the Entertainer; Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins), who knows all the players in the drug trade and can make introductions… or set-up executions at a whim.

There’s a lot of breath-holding to be had in
Street Kings (and, sadly, no hobos, the real kings of the streets). This is a film for those who liked The Departed but are willing to deal with the less expressive acting style of Keanu rather than Leonardo DiCaprio or Matt Damon in the lead. With Reeves, it is hard to get a bead on what ~ if anything ~ is going on in his head. His lack of warmth does make it hard to get involved in the character’s well-being the way you might with another actor, but other than that, the story and the acting is first rate. Think of it as "The Departed-lite", and enjoy.

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