One of the advantages of putting in rather a lot of miles on the treadmill and/or the recumbent cycle at the gym in the morning is that one occasionally gets to spend some quality time with an interesting film or television show. On other occasions, sadly, one is stuck with Perpetual Procedurals and reruns of *shudder* Charmed. One simply cannot guarantee the presence of acceptable viewing alternatives.
This morning, though, I got to watch something interesting: Street Kings, the James Ellroy-originated cop action/noir film from 2008. It did not, as a rule, receive favorable reviews. I’m inclined to think that the basic tenor of the criticisms is fair — the script reads like a skeleton version of Ellroy, Brian Helgeland, and Curtis Hanson’s far superior work on the stunning L.A. Confidential, a skeleton clearly put together by people who didn’t really pay close enough attention to what made that film so good. I find myself disagreeing, however, with most of the harsher criticisms of the casting. In fact, what fascinated me most about this film was the way in which, had someone been paying attention to what really worked for the Russell Crowe character in L.A. Confidential, this could have been an absolutely ideal use of Keanu Reeves as an actor.
In L.A. Confidential, Bud White (Crowe’s character) is often wordlessly violent. He is powerfully committed to a certain notion of justice, a basically honorable (if not particularly subtle or law-abiding) man who is recognized as such and taken up as a tool by corrupt superiors. When we see his inner life, it is only because it has exploded into action. Crowe does an excellent job of reacting without reacting — because the audience often knows a bit more of what’s going on than the characters in the scene do, Crowe’s job is to show us someone who is deliberately not reacting to something to which he should react. In Bud White’s case, the character often fails in this regard, so we are shown his stressful effort at doing so. This becomes especially clear when Bud is seen in comparison to the brains of the story, Guy Pearce’s highly effective Ed Exley. Exley’s the plotter, the one who sees the angles, and the one better at dissembling and playing the system instead of being a blunt instrument in the hands of others. His skill at non-reaction only highlights the strain on Bud White, so that what makes Crowe’s performance work especially well is not just what he does with Bud, but what we, the audience, create in our apprehension of Bud relative to the others around him.
The unfortunate thing about the way Keanu Reeves’ character in Street Kings is written is that he is built like a bargain-rate Bud White, but with bizarre dialogue that’s entirely out of place and a whole host of weird backstory details that don’t end up really serving the story. At its best, though, what Reeves does with Tom Ludlow is just what Crowe did with Bud White — he gives the audience artful non-reaction, and it works. When he’s in the same scene with Hugh Laurie, or sometimes with Forrest Whitaker (whose role was clearly written by an uncredited rodeo clown co-author, unfortunately), it shows, particularly with Laurie (who is also one of those actors excellent at suppressed reactions and engaging other actors in a scene).
It is tempting to claim that there’s an obvious difference between a block of wood not reacting to something and a person “not reacting” to something, and to suggest that Reeves, as a rule, is a master of the former rather than the latter. I think this is an unfair criticism of Reeves, and in fact misses exactly what he is best at. When he seems most wooden, it’s usually because he’s playing a part that relies on dialogue-centered reactions, generally in a scene with another actor or actors who do not engage well. Yet even then, what is arresting about his physical presence on screen is that it is always, well, present.
He ain’t just pretty. There are a lot of very pretty people who can’t act in the world, and they are pretty damn obvious because they barely register when they’re onscreen. Reeves is always in the scene, and one always has the sense that something is going on with his character. His best work happens when the audience cannot be sure of what that something is, or is beginning to see it just as the character himself is. Tom Ludlow, like Bud White, is a tool in the hands of those capable of seeing his potential and exploiting it. He is lost in the scheming around him. He is also, however, necessarily capable of some of Ed Exley’s subtlety. He has to be. We are given a “partner” of sorts for him, in the person of Paul Diskant (Chris Evans), but Diskant isn’t written as Exley, and Evans just doesn’t have much to do (or much to do it with, honestly). There are, somehow, both too many and too few characters for the story in this case (a problem L.A. Confidential’s better-scaled narrative did not have), and the result is an awkward misuse of the very device that made Bud White so compelling and that would best have exploited Reeves’ talent for being present. The weaknesses of the story also betray one of the few strong points of the direction — the bits where Ayer, using Reeves well, lets the audience know more than some of the characters, so that presence and non-reaction have a context in which to create tension in a scene (such as the bit in the last act where Ludlow and Diskant run into Laurie’s Capt. Biggs on their way to engage in a wee bit of mayhem).
Was it a great bit of cinema? No, not really. It could have been, however, just the sort of film that would demonstrate the usefulness of the kind of physical actor that Reeves happens to be. I would pay to see him in a role where he never spoke a word, because I think that, assuming that role were written well and directed by someone with the right touch, it would be powerful stuff. Not all acting is speaking, and not all that makes an actor good is in the delivery of lines.