Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter!
Isaiah 5:20 (RSV)
With a title reminding one of Sidney Lumet’s 1981 film set in New York City Prince of the City, this film also is about a vice cop, but the action is on the opposite side of the country, in the mean streets of Los Angeles. This is a well acted film, but Keenu Reeves’ Tom Ludlow makes Dirty Harry seem almost like Gandhi. Appealing mainly to urban young males, this is not a story about the nobility, but rather one of the corruption of justice. Tom Ludlow is corrupt not in the sense of being on the take, but rather, he has succumbed to vigilantism. As we see in the opening scene in which he takes down four Korean thugs involved in drug trafficking, he is judge, jury, and executioner.
Ludlow is protected by his mentor Capt. Wander (Forest Whitaker), who stands by the junior officer during the investigation following the shooting of the Koreans—and no wonder, as the Captain is promoted because of the bust-up of the gang. Wander calls Tom “the point of the spear,” meaning that his brutal tactics are necessary in dealing with the criminals who threaten law and order. Ludlow’s attitude is summed up in his comment to a fellow officer raising a question about his ruthless tactics, “We’re the police. We can do whatever the hell we want.” (And whites wonder why the O.J. Simpson jury refused to believe the testimony of LAPD officers in that infamous trial?)
Dogging Ludlow is Capt. Biggs (Hugh Laurie), the Internal Affairs investigator out to get Capt. Wander as well. Ludlow is estranged from his former partner Detective Washington (Terry Crews), believing that he is informing on him to Biggs. However, when Washington is murdered in a convenience store where Ludlow has followed him (he dies in his arms), Ludlow sets out on a vendetta to find the ones behind the killing. Implicated in the case because of his falling out with Washington, he joins up with Detective Paul Diskant (Chris Evans), the official investigator of Washington’s death. Soon the two are blasting away with their all too ready weapons, Ludlow following a trail that leads up to the source of the corruption.
Tom Ludlow is a wounded warrior, beginning his hazardous days with vomiting in his toilet and then ingesting airline-sized bottles of vodka to see him through. A few years earlier his unfaithful wife had been killed in unseemly circumstances. He has a lover in hospital nurse Grace Garcia (Martha Higareda), but her peripheral function is to bind up his wounds and deliver a clichéd homily to him. As mentioned earlier, the film will appeal to a young male audience craving action and not concerned with the ethics of vigilantism, judging by the cheers and comments of the preview audience I was a part of. The film does offer one good moment when Ludlow is offered a wall of money (literally!) if he will walk away and keep silent about what he knows—which might remind you of Satan tempting Jesus in the wilderness. However, the improbable ending, in which all the preceding mayhem is justified, wipes this away with its message that the end justifies the means. The truest statement in the film is Captain Wander’s comment, “We are all bad people.” I can well imagine the ancient Hebrew prophet directing his scathing words at director David Ayer and scriptwriter James Ellroy for their approval of Tom Ludlow and his rude means of securing justice.