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Dangerous Minds
Keanu Reeves stands out among impressive cast in

Street Kings (R)

3 stars out of 4

For 20 years, novelist/screenwriter James Ellroy has churned out stories that paint the LAPD as a graft-riddled boys club. His career high point was the multi Oscar-winning period piece "L.A. Confidential" in which two uncorrupted detectives brought down an entire department. In "Street Kings," Ellroy does almost the same thing, only with a modern-day setting.

For reasons deftly explained in the movie's mid-section, Detective Ludlow (Keanu Reeves) is an alcoholic burnout and defacto vigilante. He cleverly sets up a group of Korean thugs who have kidnapped and pimped out 12-year-old twin girls. Rather than arrest them and waste the taxpayers money with a trial, Ludlow mercilessly mows them down and becomes a hero.

While this sits well with Ludlow's boss, Wander (Forest Whitaker), and his vice squad underlings, it raises the eyebrow of Internal Affairs chief Biggs (Hugh Laurie in "House" mode). After several secretive meetings with Ludlow's bitter ex-partner, Washington (Terry Crews), Biggs is determined to collar Ludlow. When Washington is killed gangland style - with Ludlow nearby - Biggs puts his investigation into overdrive. "Street Kings" is the sophomore effort from David Ayer, who directed "Harsh Times" and wrote "Training Day," both L.A.-based crime stories. For most of the movie, Ayer and Ellroy make for a good team - until it comes time to wrap it all up. While the ending makes a bit of sense, it doesn't jibe with the rest of the potboiler story and feels more than a little contrived.

However, this is a testosterone-heavy, action shoot 'em up, and most fans of the genre aren't going care if the conclusion doesn't quite fit. What they will absolutely love is the violence, which is frequent and stunningly gruesome, yet is rarely gratuitous and appears much more realistic than what you'll find in the typical mainstream action thriller. Ayer and Ellroy aren't celebrating the bloodletting, they're decrying it. It's one of the finer points of the movie some might misinterpret.

The dialogue is equally as harsh and quite salty. Though some of it smacks of retooled Mickey Spillane and Quentin Tarantino, most of it recalls David Mamet. The profanity - again, never gratuitous - has a rhythmic cadence that borders on the lyrical. These are macho, somewhat insecure men doing dangerous work and they swear when they do it. The overall mechanics of the film are dead on. It's rare for a crime movie to come across so true to real life. Think of this as a lesser realized version of "The Departed."

The performances of the entire cast are also impressive, and none more surprising than that from Reeves. It would be an overstatement to say Reeves doesn't have a lot of range, something that becomes more obvious when he picks the wrong material - which is often.

Reeves' version of the Gary Cooper/Clint Eastwood brand of stoicism can only work in ultra-select parts that call for resolute calm; like in "Speed" or "The Matrix." Reeves needs to fully ditch the fluffy romantic leading man roles for which he is no longer suited and move on to the next phase of his career. "Street Kings" is a step in the right direction. (Fox Searchlight)

E-mail Michael Clark at clarkwriter@mindspring.com.