NOTE: I saw this before going through The Wire. As Wire fans know well, it's hard to say if movies about crime were actually good or not if you haven't been educated by The Wire.
For those who didn't get their corrupt cop/gangsta underbelly cliche fix from The Departed (or a zillion other such films), you've got Street Kings, a virtual reference guide to familiar characters and plot elements from this genre. It's all here: a somewhat naive/straight cop paired with Keanu Reeves' Harry Callahan-clone (seriously, who the fuck thought Reeves would be convincing in such a role?), pestering by Internal Affairs, a disregard for due process/human rights, the criminal element traced all the way up to the head/heart of the precinct, the disintegration of what was a bullshit moral code to begin with, and, uh, lots more.
The movie bends over backwards to use all the tricks in the book. In order to find a pair of cop killers, Keanu goes through a chain of no less than three middlemen, who serve no purpose other than to provide him/us with colorful ghetto stereotypes to be abused in various ways as the straight cop partner protests. You get the picture. Reeves is absolutely lunkheaded, the only actor in a film that thrives on unintentional humor who doesn't seem to be in on the joke.
Elsewhere, the performances revel in the absurdity of the affair. Hugh Laurie, an imperious desk cop with his finger on the pulse of both I.A. and Keanu's crew, gets to sneer and say "fuck" a lot in his American Accent, and waltzes away with every frame he's in. Forest Whitaker is Keanu's immediate boss, gets to twitch and say "fuck" a lot, and generally steals all of his scenes as well. Laurie and Whitaker clearly understand the discipline behind this type of genre film, and are wildly entertaining to watch, though one never quite escapes the suspicion that they're condescending to the material. Fortunately, Keanu Reeves' super serious performance gives the film a nice sturdy center: it's genuinely a B-movie, not a bunch of clever actors making fun of B-movies.
It's difficult to claim that Street Kings is any good, since everything in it can be found better executed in other films. It's not going to convert anybody to the bad-cop genre, except perhaps rank novices. Genre enthusiasts will undoubtedly find fault in the numerous plot inconsistencies, Reeves' total lack of credibility, and of course the by-the-numbers nature of the affair. Yet, there's a certain raw kinetic energy produced by the film's unabashed determination to be oh-so-fucking gritty, raw, and morally ambiguous. At a pivotal moment in the film, two mysterious criminals decline to give their names, instead saying, "We're a straight fucking nightmare. We're the walking, talking Exigent Circumstances." Or something like that. Yeah fucking right! And at the same time, Fuck yeah!