Given how global our anxieties are running of late, it came as a shock to be reminded that, 10 years ago, we created our very own apocalypse. Ron Shelton's hyperkinetic new action drama Dark Blue takes place in the period between the Rodney King beating and the trial of the police officers involved. The movie's foreground is systemic corruption in the SIS (Special Investigations Squad), an elite cadre within the LAPD, and the feverish opening scene suggests that we might be about to see into the lost soul of one of its members. Eldon Perry, played with feral incandescence by Kurt Russell—who grows more Nolte-like with age—agitatedly paces his dingy Hollywood motel room. The television blares its nth repeat of the videotape showing the cops clubbing King to the ground; the trial verdicts are about to be announced. We don't yet know about the source of Perry's anguish, though the passage of his deeply compromised years shows in his rheumy eyes and puffy, unshaven face, flushed with last night's liquor and, as it turns out, two pieces of very bad news.
Eldon, we soon learn, has spent his life following horrible examples—notably that of his father, also a cop, and of the slippery SIS boss, Jack Van Meter (the excellent Brendan Gleeson)—and he's now busy passing them on to his partner, Bobby Keough (Scott Speedman), a wet-behind-the-ears rookie who has no idea what he's getting himself into. In the eyes of his superiors, Eldon is a star who's long overdue for a promotion. When he fudges or ignores the rules, his bosses go through the motions of disciplinary inquiry, but they don't give a damn what he does so long as he gets his man.
The Los Angeles Police Department refused to cooperate in the making of Dark Blue—no ride-alongs, no nothing—and though the churlish among us might conclude that this is because the movie portrays the SIS as a barrel full of rotten apples, my own view is that, like me, the LAPD was defeated by the movie's incestuously proliferating plots. I've seen Dark Blue twice, and I still don't have a handle on all its comings and goings . . . but here goes. The main event is Perry and Keough's pursuit of a quadruple homicide—possibly racially motivated—perpetrated in a Korean convenience store by Orchard and Sidwell, who sound like mutual-fund managers but are, in fact, an interracial brace of thugs (played by rap artist Kurupt and Dash Mihok) who also happen to be Van Meter's top informants—and more. Additionally, Bobby happens to be Van Meter's nephew, and he happens to be sleeping with Beth (Michael Michele), who happens to be deputy to the lone honest cop in the whole setup, assistant LAPD chief Holland (Ving Rhames), with whom Beth, who's also black, happened to have a one-night stand five years earlier. Dark Blue is stuffed to the gills with blithely improbable coincidence and subsidiary story lines, including two separate internal investigations and Eldon's failing marriage to a weary prison officer (Lolita Davidovich). Amid all this foreground, the background all but disappears, and Dark Blue proclaims itself a character drama and a voyage of self-discovery for the flawed cop—which proves to be its fatal weakness.
Dark Blue is based on an unpublished story by James Ellroy, and it's hard to imagine two more disparate sensibilities than Ellroy's and Shelton's, though each, in his way, is a dyed-in-the-wool romantic. A congenital apocalyptic, Ellroy gets off on venality and corruption the way Shelton gets off on sports and sex. A little of Ellroy's hepcat swagger goes a long way for my money, but he's never been one to dilute his bleak vision of humanity (let alone the LAPD) with tales of redemption. He is also unsentimental about race, and one can only imagine him rolling his eyes at the unsullied nobility of assistant chief Holland (the usually reliable Rhames declaims his lines like a cardboard Roman emperor), never mind the prodigal homecoming of Eldon Perry.
Shelton is a likable, generous director who has made two pretty good films (Blaze and Bull Durham), but it's not at all clear he has the chops to take on an action movie, let alone the intricacies of police politics—let alone the politics of race, about which he had more imaginative things to say in White Men Can't Jump. Despite screenwriter David Ayer's bona fides as a South-Central homey (see "Training Days," page 22), the movie's vision of that neighborhood seems hackneyed and reductive, pared down to the usual shorthand of seedy tenements and a rap score. The Rodney King beating is no more than a scenic backdrop; Shelton and Ayer make little serious effort at commentary on the trial's significance for race relations in LA. In a vain attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable, Dark Blue struggles to be at once realist and utopian: the system stinks, but one man with an improved attitude can make a difference. Just how wishful this is we know from the Rampart scandal, but neither hindsight nor history is relevant here. By the movie's climax, Eldon has become a bad son, and as good a man as he can ever be. Having witnessed this internal cleansing, the LAPD streams cheerfully en masse out of the Police Academy—and deigns to notice that the city is on fire.
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Dark Blue was directed by Ron Shelton; written by David Ayer, based on a story by James Ellroy; produced by Caldecot Chubb, David Blocker, James Jacks and Sean Daniel; and stars Kurt Russell and Ving Rhames. Now playing countywide.