Friday, April 11, 2008

Corrupt cops and those university blues


Novelist James Ellroy ("Black Dahlia," "LA Confidential" and "White Jazz") wrote the story for the new movie "Street Kings" and evidently helped write the script, which is credited to Ellroy, Kurt Wimmer and Jamie Moss. But the presence of the acclaimed master of hard-boiled crime stories can't quite save "Street Kings," a movie based on the now hackneyed notion that you're more likely to find a winning Power Ball ticket in your coat pocket than an honest cop in Los Angeles.

As directed by David Ayer (who wrote "Training Day" and who directed "Harsh Times"), "Street Kings" is an acid bath of a movie --a cop yarn washed in cynicism, violence and tough talk of a kind that only seems to turn up in movies and sometimes is mistaken for realism.

Maybe the whole thing would have been better had Ayer not cast Keanu Reeves in the lead. Reeves isn't awful, but he doesn't bring enough simmering torment to the role of Tom Ludlow, a detective who's allowed to operate on his own. If Ludlow wantonly guns down a bunch of bad guys, his boss (Forest Whitaker) covers for him. After all, Ludlow is indispensable, a guy whose skill at slime control keeps LA from sliding right into the Pacific.

To get through his incredibly difficult days, Ludlow primes himself with vodka shots sucked from the kind of mini-bottles you can buy airplanes. He may be anesthetized, but he's not entirely immune from problems: A former partner (Terry Crews) thinks that Ludlow's making mince meat of the law. He wants to call a halt to Ludlow's no-account ways.

The plot contrives to make Ludlow a suspect when Crews' character is gunned down during an apparent robbery at a convenience store. In trying to prove his innocence, Ludlow spills enough blood to turn Los Angeles into a war zone.

Whitaker seems to struggle with his part, and the whole movie winds up feeling bloody, overstated and familiar, like someone turning a page from an old book -- albeit one with fresh blood stains on its pages.


As for "Smart People," a small movie about a spiritually exhausted academic who finds a measure of renewal, try this: The screenplay boasts some clever writing, but the movie comes off as too flat for its own good, another film that seems to have made for screening at Sundance on a dreary afternoon when snow is falling and the busses are running late.

Looking as downtrodden as he's capable of looking, Dennis Quaid plays Lawrence Wetherhold, a widowed English professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Wetherhold never seems to have recovered from his wife's death, and he shambles through life as if he's carrying an anvil on his back. Wetherhold's 17-year-old daughter -- "Juno's" Ellen Page in another role as a smart teen-ager -- seems to have taken responsibility for her father's emotional well being. Wetherhold's son James (Ashton Holmes) is pretty much ignored -- by both dad and the script.

When Wetherhold's wastrel brother (Thomas Haden Church) shows up, normal patterns are thrown out of whack. An irresponsible guy who borrows money he never pays back, Church's Chuck encourages his brother -- and anyone else who'll listen -- to live more fully.

Perhaps taking his brother's advice, Wetherhold meets a former student (Sarah Jessica Parker) and toys with the idea of courting her. The budding romance has all the luster of a gray day in Pittsburgh, possibly because Parker doesn't bring much to the party. Oh well, she'll probably spring back to life in the upcoming "Sex and the City" movie.

An increasingly awkward relationship between Church's character and his niece strains credibility, and the movie winds feeling like a small novel that shows definite signs of promise but never quite hits its stride.

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