As cameos go, former LAPD Chief Daryl F. Gates' recent acting debut might not have the sizzle of Britney Spears tarting up "How I Met Your Mother" or the weirdness of President Bush dropping in on "Deal or No Deal," but his wiry, intense presence in David Ayer's "Street Kings" gives surprising credibility to this fantasy of police corruption.
Ever since the Rampart scandal, the Los Angeles Police Department has been Hollywood's favorite whipping boy. In "Street Kings," there's no crime too small for L.A.'s finest to commit. Cops line their houses with wads of cash. Cops double as hit men. Cops rape widows who stand in their way.
So it is something of a surprise to see the sinewy 81-year-old, who ran the Los Angeles Police Department from 1978 to 1992, playing L.A.'s police chief delivering a eulogy at a police funeral. At least the dead cop Gates praises happens to be the only honorable guy on the beat. This is the kind of film in which Gates' brainchild, SWAT, is nowhere in evidence, but "Street Kings' " hero (played by Keanu Reeves) functions as a one-man, extra-legal SWAT. He shoots first and stages a crime scene later, so no pesky questions asked.
Gates did not respond to phone calls or e-mails, but Ayer said the idea of reaching out to the famous police chief came from casting director Mary Vernieu after the filmmakers read a number of actors who lacked the wiry gravitas to capture the top brass at a funeral. "The man's an icon, a living legend, especially among cops. He's a rock star, " says Ayer. "On the set, people would be shoving Keanu out of the way to get a picture of him." When Gates showed up for his scene, he asked Ayer if he could rejigger the lines and "take standard phraseology and turn it into LAPDese," says Ayer. "I was like, 'Yes, sir. Thanks.' "
In the years since retirement, Gates has helped developed computer games that simulate police and SWAT experience and has appeared in them as the chief of police. He's now chief executive of Global ePoint, a manufacturer of security technologies. He joins an array of police officers and politicians who've moonlighted for Hollywood, such as Eddie "Popeye" Egan, a cop made famous by "The French Connection"; cop turned author Joseph Wambaugh; and the ubiquitous former New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch, who recently appeared in "We Own the Night." So why did Gates stick his blue toe into showbiz?
"He read the script. In his words, he saw it as a story of redemption," says Ayer.
Well, that is a take. Reeves' character certainly wakes up to the fact that his police buddies, as well as his mentor, are as dirty as the L.A. River. At the end of the film, he cleans out the muck without bothering with due process. Ayer, in fact, finesses the possibility of redemption: "He wakes up. It's an awakening. Whether he's redeemed is up to him. Some people aren't comfortable with the movie, but any society at the end of the day cherishes its shooter -- the guy who can go through the door and get the bad guys. When you call 911, you want someone coming through that door ready to do what they need to do."