On a purely financial level, I get this whole straight-to-DVD sequel thing, I really do. It makes sense to hitch a low budget movie to a past success, even if it means the only carryover is a supporting actor in a two-minute sequence (see Eugene Levy in the countless American Pie sequels that starred distant relatives of Steve Stifler). These movies come with a built-in audience of sorts (people who go ‘Hey, I remember that’ count as an audience, I think) and are typically a lot cheaper to make. If you have a title that draws on an easily recognizable past success, half the marketing job is done for you. Note the words easily recognizable.The American Pie sequels make sense to me. Road House 2 makes sense to me (its existence, at the very least; not the actual physical manifestation of Road House 2). Street Kings 2 does not.
Street Kings, in case you forgot, was a Keanu Reeves vehicle that came out in 2008 in which he played a grieving cop who gets mixed up in a corruption scandal involving the death of another officer. Forest Whitaker screams at him a lot. I saw Street Kings when it came out on DVD and this is what I remember about it:
1) Keanu Reeves was in it.
2) It was set in LA.
3) I believe some people got shot.
4) I didn’t hate it.
Evidently, this is what the filmmakers behind Street Kings 2: Motor City are banking on. Not the award-winning qualities of the first film, its runaway box-office success (it made roughly 60 million worldwide on a 20 million budget; for comparison’s sake, 103 movies made more money in 2008) or its rich, diverse universe and the endless possibilities for expansion. No, Street Kings 2 exists because the filmmakers are hoping that enough people out there will remember not hating the original. In a world where ‘From one of the producers of 300’ counts as impressive ad copy, someone has managed to out-lazy the laziest.
Unsurprisingly, Street Kings 2 has very little to do with the original. The original starred Reeves, Whitaker, Hugh Laurie, Chris Evans, Common, Cedric the Entertainer and Terry Crews. Motor City stars the considerably more affordable power duo of Ray Liotta and Shawn Hatosy. The original had a script by hardboiled pulp novelist James Ellroy; this one has a script co-written by a guy whose claim to fame is directing something called Tamara, starring Step Up’s Jenna Dewan. As you may have noticed from the title, the original’s Los Angeles setting has been swapped for the more budget-conscious choice of Detroit. In other words, the team behind Street Kings 2: Motor City is working within a very different set of parameters.
For the first time in this blog’s history, I can draw a direct parallel between two films I’ve reviewed: the opening credits of Street Kings 2 are exactly the same as those of Out in Fifty. The data pool is still too small for me to make an educated guess, but all signs point to the fact that films that begin with the credits superimposed over boring footage from a camera strapped to the roof of a car tend to go straight-to-DVD. More on this exciting development soon, I hope. In any case, Street Kings 2 stars Ray Liotta as a former Detroit narc named Kingston who takes on the far less glamorous job of police department mascot after a botched deal leaves him with a bum leg. After his old partner is gunned down outside a strip club, he’s paired with cocky whiz kid Dan Sullivan (Shawn Hatosy in total Wahlberg mode) to find the culprit. Things are off to a rocky start as the younger cop’s do-gooder attitude clashes with Kingston’s laxer approach to the job.
Street Kings 2 does an admirable job ticking off every single cop movie cliché in the first twenty minutes. Not only do you have the world-weary old pro who believes in protecting his fellow cops above all else paired with the brash young upstart with a beautiful pregnant wife, you’re also introduced to the hard-assed captain who won’t take no for an answer AND the dead partner who was in over his head. Everyone here has done their homework in order to bring you a product as derivative and predictable as possible. To the movie’s credit, all these clichés were present in the original Street Kings, so at least we know they’re concerned in keeping the spirit alive. Of course, this is equivalent to The Town being released as Heat 2: Charlestown but it’s not like they just slapped this title on here willy-nilly. Please, these are professionals at work.
As Sullivan pries deeper and deeper into the case, he finds that the roots of corruption are burrowed deep within the police department. The more he talks, the more the bodies pile up. Smooth-talking narc Clifton Powell (who you may remember from Internet Dating) is gunned down while being serviced in a massage parlour (and uses the girl as a human shield!). His death begins pitting good cops against bad cops, forcing both of our leads to focus on their priorities: the triumph of the law for Sullivan and the saving of his ass by all means necessary for Kingston. I’m relatively sure this is the way it went down in the first Street Kings movie but I also think a similar good-vs.-bad scenario developed in Joe Carnahan’s Narc – which starred Ray Liotta.
As the DTV market’s scope grows every year, I keep hoping to find buried genius somewhere in there. In the 50’s and 60’s, Roger Corman used extremely limited budgets to harvest young talents like Peter Bogdanovich and Martin Scorsese. The films were nothing fancy (and often written around a poster idea or catchy title – you know, like reminding people of a mildly successful Keanu Reeves cop movie, for example) but they usually showed inventiveness that transcended their status as cheap exploitation and, more importantly, they almost always made money. The DTV market works in much the same way, so you’d assume there’s at least some potential somewhere in there. There’s certainly none of that shit in Street Kings 2. A generic script full of clichés leads to a generic film that trades almost entirely in cribbing scenes from more successful films.
That being said, there’s a difference between a generic film and an incompetent one. Street Kings 2 is quite firmly in the first camp. As unoriginal and tiresome as the plot may be, the action scenes are well-handled and the film has the good sense not to overstay its welcome. It’s pretty choppy in spots but I prefer that, considering the film at hand, than a long and painful exploration of interdepartmental politics. It knows it’s not The Wire, it never pretends it’ll be anywhere near The Wire and it does a bang-up job of falling short of practically everything that makes The Wire what it is. I wasn’t particularly surprised to learn that director Chris Fisher bides his time between cop shows and DTV; he shows an assured hand at making sure everything is in focus and everything is comprehensible but his approach would charitably be described as ‘workmanlike’.
I don’t get Ray Liotta’s career; he’s never been a huge star and never been above starring in some pulp garbage here and there (Turbulence, anyone?) but his choices in recent years have been questionable. Seeing him in shit like this and Hero Wanted (where he starred opposite another DTV all-star, Cuba Gooding Jr.) makes me think this is all he can get – but it isn’t. Ray Liotta was in Date Night, Wild Hogs, Observe and Report and Youth in Revolt, amongst others. None of them are particularly great movies, to be fair, but certainly high-profile studio films. Does he really need to pad out his resumé with run-of-the-mill stuff like this that basically features him reprising one of his more celebrated roles stuffed with his less celebrated roles and roasted slowly over the remnants of their scripts? It would be forgivable if, like some of his fellow down-on-their-luck thespians, he had some fun with the role. Alas, he seems mostly tired and sore throughout, relying on the same two or three stock facial expressions to get him through most of the scenes. It says volumes about the film that the only moment I truly bought is the scene where Liotta lectures kids about not taking drugs while decked out in a dog costume.
Sometimes I think that I have unrealistically high standards for the types of films I review here. I would love nothing more than to pick up Street Kings 2: Motor City and find a tight, muscular B-movie in the vein of Robert Aldrich or Don Siegel’s early work. I want to like the movies I review here even if they do look ridiculous… but Street Kings 2 doesn’t even try. It’s perfectly content being a lazy, paint-by-numbers cop thriller without an original bone in its body. It seems like the entire reason it was made was because somebody had an old script kicking around that was too similar to a major studio release. Tack a 2 on to that, pretend it was intentional and presto. Street Kings 2 isn’t even bad; it’s lazy.
So why does it exist?
I have a shelf over my sink. I had one in my former apartment as well and I hope that future apartments will also feature strategic placement of said shelf because it is the perfect place to put a laptop or portable DVD player when washing dishes. Choosing a movie to watch while doing the dishes is an art. Anything with subtitles is out; silent films or films with a lot of action are out, since my eyes are not constantly glued to the screen. Anything remotely classic or canonical is out, since I’d like to give those films my full attention. I try to pick things that are generic enough that I can walk across the kitchen and put some plates away without missing too much. The more people scream expository dialogue that I can hear from across the room, the better.
What I’m trying to say here is that Street Kings 2: Motor City is the perfect movie to wash dishes to. Of course, I value my readership too much to actually use my dishwashing movies as review fodder; I gave it my full and undivided attention. But let it be known to all of you who have a shelf above your sink that, whether or not this is intentional, we have found Valhalla.