Street Kings is self-delusional

By 
  • April 11, 2008
{mosimage}A lot of very smart people in command of rare skills, incredible technology and huge amounts of money have once again made an absurd movie — a numbingly violent, cops-versus-the-social-ills-of-America fantasy that makes no sense and bears no relationship with real people or the real world.
By the time Keanu Reaves kills approximately the 30th foul-mouthed, swaggering, drug-dealing bad guy the viewer is impelled to ask, how is it possible all this effort and money has gone into a surreal pantomime on celluloid?

There are clues littered throughout this two-hour opus that the writers and director, maybe even the actors, know Street Kings stands at a remove from reality. The film is about the world, but it is not of the world. If you could speak to the film makers over expensive wine in their palatial homes, they would tell you the film deals in mythology.

There was a time when America’s celluloid mythology was the Western — peopled by gunfighters, wild stallions, wilder Indians and a few damsels in petticoats. In this era, good versus evil gets its broad outlines projected onto silver screens in cop dramas — from Serpico to Prince of the City to Training Day to The Departed.

There’s no subtlety to the good versus evil confrontation here. Right after Detective Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reaves) completes his opening killing spree his boss (Forest Whitaker as Capt. Jack Wander) tells him, “You went toe to toe with evil and you won.”

This cartoonish echo of the speeches of George W. Bush can’t help but get the audience’s attention.

The film then presents a pattern that will be repeated several times. At each new development in the plot we follow Detective Ludlow through a bloody and chaotic sequence involving blazing guns, expensive cars and his incredible marksmanship and athleticism considering that he is clinically depressed, alcoholic and likely suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. In the aftermath Ludlow, Wander or other members of the tight-knit squad arrange the evidence to construct a different story about what actually happened.

Reality is malleable. What actually happens is less important than the story we tell about what happened. Power is in the hands of those who control the story.

As soon as this pattern is established the film makers introduce another stock character of the genre — the internal affairs officer. His role is to reel the bad cops back in and realign the story with reality.

The audience is primed for Ludlow’s agonizing journey out of the mythology of his police role to finally face the truth about himself and the hierarchy of the police department. It’s a standard tale of hubris and the fall.

In this case, however, the audience is denied the standard resolution. The myth-making machine which rewrites police crimes as police triumphs just keeps going, whether Ludlow chooses to participate or not.

In the same sense that the story of the Garden of Eden isn’t really about horticulture, cop dramas are never really about the criminal justice system. We know this when Ludlow has to interrupt his oedipal confrontation with Wander to tear down a wall in the police captain’s lovely home and reveal money and drugs hidden inside, like cancer beneath the skin of a terminal patient.

“This is my power, this is my crown,” declares an operatically overacting Whitaker.

So, what’s this myth about? It’s about imperial America telling itself it is defeating evil by unleashing its military in Iraq and Afghanistan, about an American culture which believes it can indulge its wealth in self-destructive consumerism forever and at the expense of the planet, about a political culture that exploits race but shuns all talk of racial justice. It is about our collective self-delusions.

Though this may sound like profundity itself, a cultural or political point of view doesn’t make a masterpiece. When the cliches pile so high they overwhelm us, and plot and dialogue mechanically hit us over the head with their presumed seriousness, our intelligence is insulted.

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