The pre-credits opening scene in “Kings” is a straightforward shock to the system and serves notice we could be in for an unforgettable viewing experience.
A black teenage girl wearing an oversized blue backpack walks into a convenience store, grabs a bottle of orange juice, stuffs it in her back pocket and approaches the counter, money in hand.
“You’re trying to steal my orange juice!” cries the Korean woman behind the counter. The girl tries to explain she is trying to pay for it, a scuffle ensues — and the woman pulls out a gun and shoots the girl, killing her instantly.
Director Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s staging of the scene is a docudrama-type re-creation of a real-life tragedy that occurred in Los Angeles in 1991, when 15-year-old high school student Latasha Harlins was falsely accused of shoplifting by a convenience store owner who shot and killed Harlins. It’s a powerful, shocking moment.
It’s also one of the few times “Kings” delivers an impactful moment, even though the rest of the film is set against the backdrop of the trial of the four LAPD officers who beat Rodney King, and the riots that ignited after all four were acquitted. The English-language debut from the brilliant talent behind best foreign film picture nominee “Mustang” is a terribly uneven, borderline absurdist jumble that undercuts its own message again and again.
How did the filmmakers possibly think it would be a good idea to intersperse realistic scenes of tension and violence and heartbreak on the streets of Los Angeles with a wacky, rom-com subplot in which Halle Berry and Daniel Craig are handcuffed together to a light pole and can’t help but acknowledge that beneath their bickering, they’ve got the hots for one another?
No. I’m serious. Daniel Craig show up in a movie about the L.A. riot — and his character makes almost zero sense. One moment he’s a hot-tempered, hard-drinking neighbor looming as a menacing, threatening presence to Berry and her extended family. Next thing we know, she’s having an erotic dream about him, and they’re paired up on a zany adventure even as fires rage and shots ring out in the neighborhood.
Berry, looking as if she just walked off the set of a photo shoot in nearly every scene, plays Millie, a saintly, overworked, always harried but ever-smiling foster mother who is lovingly taking care of a growing number of at-risk children. (At one point she happens across a potentially deadly situation, with a teenager up against a wall as police harass him. She rushes in and pretends to be his angry mother, so she can extricate him from the moment, and takes him home.)
With the trial of the police officers constantly playing in the background on TV, we get scenes of Millie and the kids having fun in the backyard pool and Millie trying to be both disciplinarian and tender loving mom — even as Craig’s Obie yells from across the street, “If you can’t get [those kids] to shut up, we are going to have an all-out brawl!”
Meanwhile, there’s a melodramatic love triangle of sorts, with the goodhearted and responsible Jesse (Lamar Johnson) at odds with the troublesome William (Kaalan Walker), with the feisty Nicole (Rachel Hilson) caught between them.
The verdicts are announced: not guilty.
“That’s not possible!” says Millie.
Confrontations break out in the streets. Police and news helicopters take to the sky. Violence breaks out, stores are looted, fires are set and lives are endangered. (“What’s the plan?” says one of the kids. “Stay the f— alive,” comes the reply.)
Millie and Obie try to stop kids from celebrating the violence and from looting stores — but a maniacal cop misinterprets their actions, pulls a gun on them and tells them they’re under arrest.
“You are exactly what I have been fighting my whole life!” yells the cop. “I’ve got a badge and a uniform, and I’m going to put you in jail!”
Huh? He’s been fighting against two obviously responsible adults who look like movie stars and were trying to stop kids from getting into trouble?
The cop eventually has to leave Millie and Obie handcuffed to that light pole, and while they’re trying to wriggle free, one of the kids has suffered grievous bodily harm, and there’s a frantic race to get him to a hospital and save his life.
But even that deadly serious development isn’t a direct result of the riots. It just happens to take place at that time. This is just one of the many, many curious and dramatically unsuccessful paths taken by “Kings.”
The Orchard presents a film written and directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven. Rated R (for violence, sexual content/nudity, and language throughout). Running time: 92 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.