DARK BLUE (director/writer: Ron Shelton; screenwriters: based on a story by James Ellroy/David Ayer; cinematographer: Barry Peterson; editor: Paul Seydor; music: Terence Blanchard; cast: Kurt Russell (Sgt. Eldon Perry Jr.), Scott Speedman (Bobby Keough), Ving Rhames (Deputy Chief Arthur Holland), Brendan Gleeson (Jack Van Meter), Michael Michele (Sgt. Beth Williamson), Lolita Davidovich (Sally Perry). Master P (Crenshaw Gangster Crip), Dash Minok (Sidwell), Kurupt (Orchard), Jonathan Banks (Internal Affairs Lieutenant), Mimi Fletcher (Mrs. Holland); Runtime: 118; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Caldecot Chubb/David Blocker/James Jacks/Sean Daniel; MGM/UA; 2002)
“… there’s not much here but for the pulp entertainment value and watching how craftily Russell manuevers to give his tragically-flawed character some dignity.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Dark Blue purports to be a thought-provoking social conscience action-packed cop story with ambitions to spill its guts out about LA’s racial divide and to go inside the ‘wall of blue’ to get the scoop on a ring of corrupt officers. It’s much like the recently released Narc, another film about dirty cops, as it reaches that film’s high points in intensity and grit. It’s about a veteran cop whose life is being ripped apart and he’s searching to save his soul. He’s a psychologically tortured, alcoholic, cynical, tough-guy, Sgt. Eldon Perry Jr., played with much force and love for his character by Kurt Russell, who feels the pressures from his job and has a time bomb ticking inside him that runs parallel to the bomb ticking for the city. Eldon’s good at his job but he’s become too corrupt, as he’s become trapped by his elder mentors who were his authority figures and who controlled his mind. His problem is that he never grew up and never was able to think for himself.
Eldon’s the one society pays to do their dirty work while they sit back in their safe neighborhoods indifferent to his task of holding back a crime wave in the inner city. He feels the job is impossible if done by the book so he takes the law into his own hands in the style of frontier justice, as he rationalizes that he’s the good guy trying to make the streets safe from the bad guys just like his daddy, also a cop, did before him in the good old days. The public is satisfied with this approach until things get out of hand and the cops are caught acting improperly, and then the media publicizes all this ugliness and society then acts as if it really cares.
It’s based on a story by James Ellroy (“LA Confidential” used his crime novel) and the screenplay by David Ayer (penned “Training Day“), as this project has taken at least 7 years to get off the ground and has gone through many writers including Russell taking a shot at trying to make the bigoted anti-hero a shaded character that the audience could somehow empathize with. It’s directed by Ron Shelton (“Bull Durham“/”White Men Can’t Jump“/”Tin Cup“), whose known for his sports-themed films. In a way this film also plays much like a sports film with the cops in place of the athletes, as it all comes down to reading the final score in simplistic terms of winning or losing.
“Dark Blue” had a chance to be a great film that clawed its way into the camps of opposing cops and could come away saying something fresh about black-white relationships that meant something, but the snappy script chickened out by the finale and it boiled down to a so-so familiar character study of a cop who disgraced himself and seeks our forgiveness by making amends. It also got bogged down with an unnecessary tangled love story that seemed to be created more as a plot device and never worked to enliven the story. The plot line got more complicated by the minute and ends up with an unconvincing twist in plot, whereas the main character literally descends into hell by the conclusion (he’s stuck in the middle of the riot chasing down two thugs). That his personal problems overshadows the importance of the riot, really puts a damper on the film’s ambitions. It amounted to letting this melodrama play into just another routine dirty-cop genre film.
That it is an exciting film, one in which Kurt Russell gives the performance of his 40 year career, but one that goes only as far as the limits it imposed on itself. Its backdrop of the LA riot satisfies because it’s so scary and it hits on a hot button topic that hasn’t been featured quite this way before now. But since it slickly skirts around saying too much that has any weight, it fails to enlarge its aim but only uses the riot as colorful background material for a story that’s still waiting to be told properly. The filmmakers seem anxious to take bows for being one of the few films to even address that controversial topic, but they missed their golden chance to say something other than the trivial — that rogue cops better know their boundaries.
The film is set in 1992 during a 5-day period leading up to the announcement of the court verdict of the Rodney King beating case being deliberated by an all-white jury in Simi Valley. The story centers around a ring of vigilante cops who believe they can plant evidence and execute the bad guys just because they are bad guys and deserve this kind of street justice, as they hide behind a law-and-order philosophy. Veteran Sergeant Eldon Perry’s greenhorn newly assigned partner, the gullible idealist with a surfer boy hairdo, Detective Bobby Keough (Scott Speedman), has been infected with all of Eldon’s poisonous hatred. He’s also connected to this group because he’s a nephew of Eldon’s boss, the greedy and corrupt Jack Van Meter (Brendan Gleeson), an even more vile character than the more likable bad cop Eldon. Bobby is facing an Internal Affairs hearing and is then taken before a Shooting Board, as he killed his first criminal as an initiation ritual into the good old white boy’s club of the LAPD. The one black member of the Board who is transfixed throughout as an always angry and glowering figure is the by-the-book Deputy Chief Arthur Holland (Ving Rhames), who votes him guilty. But as usual, the cop is exonerated as according to policy and returned to duty.
Warning: spoiler in the next paragraph.
In a flashback to a few days back we witness the events that led up to the Shooting Board trial, as a brutal robbery for a safe stashed in a Korean-run convenience store in South Central turns into a massacre of 4 people and one passer-by was also seriously shot in the throat, who is used to identify the race of the thugs. Eldon and Bobby are hand-picked to lead the investigation by Van Meter, as they work in an elite SIS unit (Special Investigations Squad). The only clues they have are that it was a salt (Dash Minok) and pepper (Kurupt) team that did it, and that the safe had $150,000. But Eldon immediately recognizes this as the work of the salt and pepper team, felons out on parole and working for Jack as stoolies. But Jack orders Eldon to take down two other felons instead and to blame them for the massacre.
The film sketches the lives of the main participants as they are deeply affected by the turmoil of their work. Eldon’s marriage to Sally (Lolita Davidovich), a Department of Corrections intake worker, is in shambles because he’s married to the job and almost completely ignores her and his son. When she asks for a divorce, this news shakes him out of his glee that he’s finally to receive a promotion to lieutenant. The bachelor Bobby is having an affair for the last three-weeks with a sexy black sergeant, Beth Williamson (Michael Michele), who insists on secrecy and of them not revealing each other’s last name. It turns out she works as an aide for Deputy Chief Holland, with whom she had an affair 5 years ago and he called it off saying he doesn’t want to cheat on his wife any more. She’s also involved in Holland’s investigation of Van Meter, Perry, and her boyfriend, as her boss vows to bring down these corrupt cops. All the character studies, except for Eldon’s, are thinly drawn and have been used in many other recent cop films.
The finale begins by revisiting the familiar riot scene with newsreel footage and fresh scenes interspersed, as Russell hunts down the two unsavory thugs at the onset of the riot. Then at his promotion ceremony, he gives an unmercifully long confessional speech about his misdeeds. He tells how he is willing to go to prison to cleanse his soul, and he symbolically acts to take the place of the acquitted white cops so that LA can recover from its past ugliness. It’s an ending that could have been crypt-ed from any number of 1930s social drama crime films, as he suddenly gets on the soap box and preaches about morality after the heart of the film is based on self-righteous violence. It seemed entirely out of place in this hard-boiled and realistically bent urban atmospheric film. And, further to its detriment, the film shuns any comments about the national tragedy after teasing us by indicating that was the story it was after. It instead comes safely down on the politically correct side of the cop controversy and ends up as that old-hat formulaic veteran-rookie movie. It makes an effort to show how the Russell character is the kind of macho cop that the public has been induced into thinking it needs to get tough with the criminals, and indicates that it will always call for him in times of trouble despite the dirty methods he uses. In the end, there’s not much here but for the pulp entertainment value and watching how craftily Russell manuevers to give his tragically-flawed character some dignity.
REVIEWED ON 3/3/2003 GRADE: C +
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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