Talking Movies

May 7, 2018

From the Archives: Street Kings

Another deep dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives reveals a neglected but dramatically rich highpoint in Keanu Reeve’s post-Matrix career.

The LA Tourist Board is almost certain to take out a contract on the life of David Ayer after seeing this film. The writer/director who gave us Harsh Times and Training Day adds another entry to his steadily growing resume of violent films depicting Los Angeles as Hell on Earth, populated entirely by vicious criminals and corrupt cops. Thankfully there is another element to this tale which makes it praiseworthy and that is the story and screenplay credit for James Ellroy, the celebrated novelist whose work provided the source material for 1997’s masterful LA Confidential. This film does not approach the sheer depth of character and artful plotting of that masterpiece. It does however complicate Ayer’s simplistic worldview.

Keanu Reeves is a loose cannon cop, “the tip on the spear” as his superior calls him, a blunt instrument who kills the worst criminals. The almost too clever opening sequence of the film sees a dishevelled boozing Reeves attempt to sell a machine gun from the back of his car to Korean gangsters who beat him up and steal said car after he unleashes a slew of racial epithets. Reeves tracks them to their house, retrieves a concealed gun and body armour from his car and blows the Korean villains away to save two teenage girls they had kidnapped. He then carefully stages the scene to make it look like they shot first, the “exigent circumstances” which allow him to act on his Dirty Harry impulses without legal consequences. But, just like the implacable Harry Callahan, Reeve’s Detective Tom Ludlow is also powered by a tremendous sense of justice as well as vengeance. When wrongly implicated in the murder of his former partner Reeves cannot let it go. He jeopardises the elaborate cover-up by his friends in the department in his single-minded search to find out who the cop-killers are by painstaking detective work before killing them for their crime. This part of the film is superb as Ludlow’s good qualities act as a tragic flaw hastening his own downfall.

A fine cast sees Chris Evans stand out as Detective Diskin, who helps Ludlow while being shocked by his tactics. Hugh Laurie is nicely sinister as the head of Internal Affairs but Forest Whitaker is quite awful as Ludlow’s boss – his dialogue is so many cop movie clichés strung together that it actually becomes unintentionally hilarious. Ultimately though this is Reeves’ film and this is one of his best roles. Ludlow’s unstoppable thirst for answers and vengeance, regardless of the consequences for himself, causes him to stumble into a much bigger conspiracy which reveals to him that his violent tendencies may have been exploited by smarter people… Sadly at this point labyrinthine noir gives way to a simplistic Hollywood ending. But despite its flaws this is grittiness well worth seeing.

3/5

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October 5, 2012

Sinister

The producers of Paranormal Activity eschew their look for a more classically shot horror that has odd echoes of recent art-house oddity Berberian Sound Studio.

In the name of research true crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) moves into a house where a family was murdered. He neglects to tell his wife their new home is a crime scene… Law & Order fans will get a kick out of some minor roles as Ellison is brusquely welcomed by Fred Dalton Thompson (That’s Senator Thompson of Tennessee to you!) as the local Sheriff who wants him gone, and later he gets research help from an expert on the occult (Vincent D’Onofrio). He needs that help after stumbling over some old 8mm films in the attic, which turn out to be the home movies of a serial killer that include many other massacres besides the one Ellison’s researching, all just dripping occult symbols. Ellison gleefully believes this discovery will propel him back into the limelight. But then strange things start to literally go bump in the night…

Ethan (Training Day) Hawke as a man trying to re-scale the heights of a hit from the early 2000s seems like cruel casting that would do Veronica Mars proud. He’s very effective though as there’s an unexpectedly meaty emotional throughline with Juliet Rylance as his long suffering English wife Tracy; who’s worried about the malign effect his work has on their two children. There’s also great comedic relief from Deputy “So and So” (James Ransone); embarrassingly eager to assist Ellison’s research. Director/co-writer Scott Derrickson displays flair in building dread thru the effect the horrors of the 8mm films have on Ellison’s psyche. The idea of a serial killer who slaughters families before abducting one child, and who has been this doing since the late 1960s, is chilling, and Derrickson stages some wonderful scares as an increasingly paranoid Ellison chases shadows.

But even a truly terrifying sequence involving the night terrors of Ellison’s young son has not involved anything ghoulish. And then a spectacular scare moment loudly announces that this serial killer’s methods are supernatural; and he is now after Ellison… Sinister doesn’t quite reach the heights of The Woman in Black because Derrickson cheats a good deal. Ellison has a bizarre preference for working in the dark. He never switches on a damn light in the house at night, making it easier for the audience to fill the shadows with all kinds of scary monsters; which Derrickson takes advantage of for one heart-stopping supernatural jump scare. A brace of central ideas are also lifted from Doctor Who and American Gods. Gripes aside, this is tense stuff that patiently, inexorably builds towards a suspenseful, traumatic finale.

I don’t understand why Sinister is being released this early in October, because it is by way of being the perfect Hallowe’en scary movie.

4/5

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