Director : Ron Shelton
Screenplay : David Ayer (story by James Ellroy)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : Kurt Russell (Eldon Perry), Scott Speedman (Bobby Keough), Ving Rhames (Deputy Chief Arthur Holland), Brendan Gleeson (Jack Van Meter), Michael Michele (Beth Williamson)
Dark Blue is a tough, but somewhat routine, corrupt-cop morality tale that generates a good deal of power by being set in the five-day period in 1992 leading up to the riots that tore apart South Central Los Angeles in the wake of the verdict that acquitted the policemen who beat Rodney King. Throughout the film are carefully placed TV sets broadcasting the actual footage of that time—King being beaten, the white truck driver Reginald Denny being attacked for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, looters ransacking stores while the city burns—all of which has become familiar to us through repetition, yet is somehow made new and frightening again by being incorporating into this fictional story.
Kurt Russell, one of the most consistently underrated actors working today, gives a strong, gnarled performance as Eldon Perry, a third-generation cop who is days away from being promoted to lieutenant. If it were the Old West, Perry would be a gunslinger—he’s a hard-drinking, hard-living, driven veteran who, in the most mundane sense of the word, is thoroughly corrupt. He takes order and carries them out, even if that means fabricating evidence and even killing suspects in cold blood. Perry is not a one-dimensional villain, though, as his actions, while morally indefensible, still derive from a deep conviction that he’s doing the right thing. “At the end of the day, the bullets were in the bad guys,” he rationalizes at one point. Of course, his conception of good and evil is simplistic at best.
Perry is partnered with a fresh-faced rookie cop named Bobby Keough (Felicity’s Scott Speedman), who straddles the film’s moral center. Keough is just as driven as Perry, but he hasn’t become thoroughly corrupted yet—one of the film’s jittery fears is that he will. Keough clearly wants to be part of the club and do his duty, but when that calls for him to commit acts that increasingly cross over into that which defines the very criminality he is supposed to be fighting, he begins to waver. He still has a sense of idealism, something his older comrades on the force have long since lost.
It is somewhat ironic that Bobby’s uncle is a high-ranking police lieutenant, Jack Van Meter (Brendan Gleeson), whose position on the corruption scale is off the chart. Van Meter is the kind of white-collar criminal who’s worse than any sociopath on the street because he’s just as cruel, but he hides behind respectability by exploiting criminals (and sometimes his fellow cops) to do his dirty work for him. The crime Perry and Keough are investigating, a convenience-story break-in during which time four civilians were brutally shot in cold blood, was committed by a couple of amoral junkies working for him.
Meanwhile, the upright and career-focused Deputy Chief Arthur Holland (Ving Rhames), who aspires to become Los Angeles’ first African-American police chief and is the closest thing the film has to a moral center, is determined to expose Perry, Van Meter, and the other corrupt cops who he feels are destroying the integrity of the LAPD. The fact that this is taking place within days of the Rodney King verdict underscores Holland’s belief, but also undermines his determination in that it suggests that the integrity is already gone—he’s seeking to salvage something that has already been irreparably lost.
Dark Blue was written by David Ayer from a story by James Ellroy. Both have plenty of previous experience working in the corrupt-cop genre, as Ayer penned the screenplay for Training Day (2001), in which Denzel Washington won an Oscar for his portrayal of a depraved narcotics officer, and Ellroy wrote the novel on which L.A. Confidential (1997), a neo-noir about corrupt police officers in 1940s L.A., was based. One of the film’s strongest attributes is its gritty sense of time and place; you can almost feel the heat in the pressure cooker rising as the court verdict draws closer and closer. It is standard screenwriting convenience that all the threads of the story come together just as the verdict is read and South Central explodes into chaos, but it is filmed with such gustiness and conviction that we can ignore the increasingly unlikely coincidences. The team of director Ron Shelton (Bull Durham, Cobb) and cinematographer Barry Peterson (Zoolander) recreate the horror of the inner-city riots with terrifying first-person urgency.
The film does have a few weak spots, namely a relationship between Keough and Beth Williamson (Michael Michele), a police sergeant who is not only working with Holland on busting Perry and the others, but was also a former lover of his. Keough and Beth have a first-name-only sexual relationship, but you know it’s only a matter of time before she opens a file in the investigation and is shocked to see his picture; in fact, the whole “first name only” aspect of their relationship feels contrived solely for the moment when this happens. In general, their relationship adds little to the story and only serves to strain credulity.
This is not the case, however, of the depiction of the strained marriage between Perry and his wife (Lolita Davidovich). They only have two scenes together, but in them Davidovitch and Russell embody all the pain of a crumbling marriage, which neatly serves as a concise metaphor for the larger collapse of the city around them and any sense that justice can truly be served.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick