Keanu Reeves in Street Kings (dir. David Ayer, 2008).
Street Kings seems to be doing pretty good box office, despite being mostly trashed by the critics. This in itself is no big deal--the same could be said for, say, 10,000 BC or Scary Movie 7 or what have you. But in this case, since it's not the sort of movie that pleases crowds by sheer spectacle or soothing idiocy or star appeal (Keanu Reeves can't really bring in that many viewers on his own now, can he?), I think the critics have missed something. There's no doubt that the dialogue is sometimes outrageously cliched and stilted. Reeves still can't really act (though age is giving his face some interesting gravity). The plot is so predictable they might as well have started with the ending and worked back. And yet, rather than sinking the film, I think all these things actually contribute to its appeal. It all feels like a 50's B-movie, full of square jaws and sincere speeches and cut-rate action. Reeves is perfect for this sort of hackery, and James Ellroy knows what he's doing (up to a point) with his mannered script. He works with the genre conventions so literally and flatly that they effectively become pastiche.
I say "effectively" because in truth I'm not entirely convinced Ellroy knows what he's doing, here or in his novels. Part of what I find interesting about his work is just how repressed and lacking in true self-knowledge he comes off as, despite all his autobiographical mythologizing in both his fiction and memoirs. For example, I honestly have no idea whether he's conscious of the homoerotic strains in his work. And I don't just mean homosocial, I mean homoerotic. I mean big guy buddy or old boss daddy guy takes in young guy wonder-hungry rookie as charge and shows him the he-male ropes or betrays him like cruel stud horse-breaker and there's also always some younger smooth Adonis kid who's just a hunk of heartbreak. All it would take to make any Ellroy story into queer niche-fiction is the addition of a few explicit guy-on-guy scenes. They could replace the rare, unconvincing hetero sex scenes, which always suggest that Ellroy has never been in the same room with a woman, let alone had any fleshly interest in one. The bizarre cartoon hound-dog noises he makes in interviews when the subject of attractive actresses comes up do little to hurt my case here. I'm sorry, is this all turning very ad hominem? I'm just trying to get at what makes Ellroy such a distinctively odd writer, and again, interesting.
So, as in the books, Ellroy's world in Street Kings is one of smothered drives, urgent sublimations, confounding blindnesses of personal motivation. It's very compelling, and whether it's intentional that it's all dressed in a bad-movie suit or not, the semblance of ironic distance thus obtained is palpable. Ellroy knows what he's doing on one level of pacing, scene-setting, all that craft stuff. But it's the combination of this skill with all those elements he doesn't know what he's doing with that's fascinating, that's disorienting, that smells like art.
Labels: David Ayer