"We're the police. We do whatever we want. We write it up however we want."
So says Los Angeles special vice detective Tom Ludlow of his hard-boiled approach to his job. For Ludlow, dispensing justice doesn't have anything to do with reading a street thug his Miranda rights. His brand of "justice" starts—and ends—with the warm barrel of his gun. A blend of the Lone Ranger and Dirty Harry (though more of the latter), Ludlow is known as "the last of the ghetto gunfighters," "the Night Watchman" and "L.A.'s deadliest white boy."
In other words, he's an executioner with a badge.
Ludlow's uncompromisingly misguided crime-fighting methodology does get results. He rescues two young girls who've been forced into sexual servitude, for example. Which is why—with the backing of his champion and mentor, Capt. Jack Wander—Ludlow is grudgingly tolerated. At the end of the day, his merciless bloodletting, lying and tampering with evidence are all means to an agreed-upon end: the end of criminals' reign on the streets.
But when Ludlow is framed for the murder of a former partner who questioned his vigilante ways, the rogue detective's already volatile existence boils over. He's forced ever deeper into the merciless rabbit hole of L.A.'s criminal underworld in search of the truth. And what he discovers makes his own moral shortcomings look like mere foibles compared to a police force that's more corrupt than he possibly could have imagined.
Ludlow's heart is in the right place if his feet never are. He genuinely wants to get the bad guys off the street and protect those who are innocent. Terrence Washington, who confronts Ludlow about his methods, is the only police officer in the movie whose motives are unsullied, though. After Washington's murder, his widow tells Ludlow that her husband had been trying to do the right thing with regard to the police corruption he saw everywhere. In a eulogy at his funeral, a fellow officer describes him as "tireless in his devotion to his church, family and department."
Ludlow wants Linda Washington to know that her husband didn't die alone. When he alludes to the fact that he's going to exact revenge on Washington's murderers, Linda rightly tells him that doing so won't bring her husband back, and she urges him not to do it. "Not in my name," she says.
Ludlow has a romantic relationship with a nurse named Grace Garcia. She tends to him when he's injured. And she implores him to tell the truth about what has happened to him. Later he attempts to distance himself from her in order to protect her. "Stay away from me," he says. "Everything I touch dies."
A young police detective named Diskant wants to help Ludlow (even though much of his "help" involves bending the rules). Ludlow eventually encourages Diskant not to follow in his gunfighter footsteps.
Several characters wear crosses. Passing reference is made to Washington's faith and the fact that he sometimes prayed for accused criminals. A police officer says that three places are sacred for a man: the toilet, Dodgers games and church.
It's said that high-ranking, married police officers are receiving oral sex from prostitutes. A corrupt police officer begins to unbutton his pants and implies that he's going to rape a woman. (Ludlow stops him.) The issue of rape comes up in conversations as well. With disdain, Ludlow describes men who kidnapped two young girls and kept them locked in a cage.
Police officers crudely refer to the sexual relationship they presume Ludlow has with Grace and accuse him of having with Linda. We hear a coarse reference to Viagra.
Grace gets out of a swimming pool in a bikini. Other outfits reveal cleavage too.
Bloody shootings in four scenes leave a number of people dead. In one of the film's most graphic moments, two goons pump dozens of rounds of automatic weapon fire into Washington, who convulses violently with each hit. Ludlow stays with him as he dies in a huge pool of blood. Likewise, Ludlow remains with another officer who's shot in the throat and subsequently dies in his arms. Another man gets shot while sitting on the toilet.
Ludlow kills a man by taking a shovel blade to his head. To escape from a car where corrupt police officers are holding him captive, Ludlow thrusts a handcuff clasp through the driver's cheek, which, of course, then leads to an accident.
A man whom Ludlow and Diskant are chasing rolls into an intertwined combination of barbed wire and razor wire. To get information, Ludlow repeatedly yanks him forcefully into the wire, then leaves him there when he gets what he wants. Ludlow beats information out of another criminal by pounding him with a phone book.
We see two decomposing bodies in a shallow grave.
Crude or Profane Language
Profanity flies even more frequently than bullets. Characters pull the trigger on more than 100 f-words (including nearly a dozen pairings with "mother" and several that are used in a sexual context) and about 50 s-words. They say "g--d--n" and take Jesus' name in vain about 10 times combined. There are a smattering of n-words and uses of "f-ggot" as well as harsh slang for both male and female anatomy. Other profanities push the tally well above 200.
Drug and Alcohol Content
The first scene tells us a lot about Tom Ludlow. He purchases three mini-bar sized bottles of vodka and downs two while driving to a meeting with drug and gun dealers. After he kills them, he knocks down another bottle—again, in his car. We see him go through this ritual again later, and it's obvious shorthand to communicate that Ludlow is deeply depressed, an alcoholic, or both. Wander knows about his DWI habit but doesn't do anything about it. Several times, Ludlow and his special vice peers drink beer, wine or hard liquor. Several characters are shown smoking.
Though there isn't any graphic onscreen drug use, the entire story is set in a world of drugs and dealing. Ludlow poses as a drug dealer and gives a couple of guys an unnamed substance in a baggie. (Their conversation implies that it's methamphetamine.) Several references are made to heroin, which is crudely deemed better than sex by a drug dealer. We see a plastic-wrapped brick of an unnamed drug that's likely heroin. And passing mention is made of a police officer taking heroin from the department's evidence cache.
Other Negative Elements
Clearly, due process, justice and the rule of law are something Ludlow, Wander and their fellow vice officers have no time for. Ludlow fraudulently makes a crime scene look like there was a shootout between him and a lair full of criminals. Then he lies about it in an investigative hearing. And Wander repeatedly cleans up Ludlow's messes, which includes spinning the story both internally and to the press.
Wander invites Ludlow to steal the security tape from the convenience store where Washington was murdered. And Wander's men purloin ballistics evidence from the crime lab. Ludlow swaps police ammo with his own high-powered ordinance to mask his identity. And he complains that Washington's careful attention to due process resulted in the release of two accused rapists on a technicality.
[Spoiler Warning] Two officers steal DNA evidence to obscure the identity of Washington's killers—who turn out to be cops living double lives as underworld drug dealers. In the end, we discover that Wander, who's become a commander, is the ruthless kingpin manipulating both police officers and criminals—and getting rich in the process. We see a wall full of cash and drugs as Wander brags, "This is my power. This is my crown. I'm the king of the streets."
A subtext is the divisive racism that separates those on the L.A.P.D. into different camps. Ludlow makes derogatory racist comments on several occasions, usually when he's deliberately trying to provoke someone.
According to Street Kings, there are three kinds of police officers in Los Angeles. Good cops, bad cops and worse cops. And it believes that the good guys are few and far between. The only one onscreen gets executed pretty early in the story.
Ludlow himself is a bad cop who has no problem playing judge, jury and executioner. But according to the movie's logic, at least he's motivated by a desire to confront lawlessness. And his heavy drinking could be interpreted as the filmmakers' way of saying he's still suffering from at least occasional bouts of conscience. Ludlow's choices are often immoral, but you get the sense that the film's antihero still has some semblance of a moral compass.
And then there are the police officers who are truly corrupt—which, it turns out, is most of them. For them, the job isn't about getting criminals off the streets, but about reveling in the power and perks they coerce from their position.
Based on a James Ellroy novel, the screenplay for Street Kings was penned by David Ayer, who also wrote the equally bleak Training Day. That's the film Street Kings most resembles in the way it deals with power and corruption. Ayer said, "I'm fascinated by corruption in law enforcement and what can happen psychologically to someone trusted to exercise deadly force on our behalf. ... [Street Kings is] an urban thriller, so everyone's a little bit corrupt. But I think the same is true in real life. Nobody wakes up and thinks that they're the bad guy. ... The film is structured like a tragedy and feels like a train wreck, but there is incredible redemption there. There is a message that no matter how far gone you are, there is always a way back."
Redemption? Only if that word means killing everyone who's worse than you. As Tom Ludlow chooses to pull the trigger on the last worse cop—who, by the way, is handcuffed to a railing—you get the sense that he hasn't learned anything at all.
Street Kings is hardly a high-minded exploration of police corruption. Instead, it's a bullet-ridden, blood-drenched and profanity-laden indulgence in Death Wish-style vigilantism that masquerades as some kind of dark morality tale. Dark? Yes. A morality tale? Not really.