If you're going to try a David Ayer movie, this is the one to try. Lesser known for his more conventional work like U-571, The Fast And The Furious, and S.W.A.T., Ayer came to fame when he penned Training Day, not the most revolutionary film, but one whose acting heralded acclaim and allowed him to start directing his own films. His second directoral effort, Street Kings wasn't even written by Ayer, instead being penned by the forces of his buddy, former co-writer, and crime novelist James Ellroy, along with the writer/director of Equilibrium, Kurt Wimmer, and unknown Jamie Moss.
Street Kings is pure Ellroy, set in the modern day: a crime drama full of police corruption, death, and human suffering. But aren't all the good tales? A decently-coarse and dark mystery, it smacks of the plot of the L.A. Confidential film: a not-quite-bright cop decides that he can't live with the corruption after losing a former partner, looks where he shouldn't, and finds a plot that he wasn't smart enough to put together on his own. Good people die at the hands of those who should serve the public trust. Those bad people suffer the necessary revenge. Really, it does follow the flow of L.A. Confidential's beats, without the acting power of Crowe, Spacey, and Pearce and dropping the gleam of period trappings. But it has a certain dark and modern visceral nature that the more staid Confidential lacked.
The cast is, all around, good and even the Wooden Boy That Could, Keanu Reeves, manages to emote something. Hugh Laurie shows up in a minor role and manages more character than most of the other actors in the movie, which should really come to be expected at this point. Forest Whitaker does a bit of his overacting; a few of his roles tend towards the subtle, like Ghost Dog, but this falls in with fare like Battlefield Earth in its level of scenery-chewing. The other Ayers staples appear in the film, including a variety of his favorite bit players who appeared in Training Day and Harsh Times, his first directorial effort. The biggest surprise that probably shouldn't be was Chris Evans, who, as usual, hands in one of the best performances in the film and is completely solid. You always feel for him, no matter what role he's in and this is yet another example of why he is one of the best and brightest of a new generation of young actors. And he's outpacing Reeves quickly, not that it takes much.
Street Kings is also a good opportunity for Ayers to show off his directoral talent, a more visually-stimulating and atmospheric film than the simpler Harsh Times. The dark tones, flashier camera angles, and action are all handled well and show a good eye for stylistic and dark noir action. Even if the film isn't the sharpest plot, it has you wanting to come back and watch it again to see the visuals combined with the dark character portrayals.
It's fortunate that people like Ayer and Narc and Smokin' Aces director Joe Carnahan are bringing back hard-boiled noir through modern crime epics like these. Hopefully it'll continue to keep the landscape of cinema interesting over the coming years.