Dark Blue Review
It's April 1992 in Los Angeles and the city is simmering with racial tension as it awaits the verdicts in the trial of the four LAPD officers who clubbed black motorist Rodney King. While the jury deliberate, rookie cop Bobby Keough (Scott Speedman) of the Special Investigation Squad is facing a trial of his own - a police inquiry into the fatal shooting of a suspect. He's exonerated thanks to the evidence of his partner, Eldon Perry (Kurt Russell) who testifies that he shot in self-defence. In fact Keough dropped his gun, Perry picked it up and killed the suspect in cold blood. Captain Arthur Holland (Ving Rhames) suspects as much but can't prove it. He's an ambitious, by-the-book career cop who considers the SIS division a nest of corrupt, racist throwbacks but he's powerless to stop them due to the political weight of their commanding officer Jack Van Meter (Brendan Gleeson), a man who knows everyone's secrets.
Out on the streets, it's business as usual. Two crackheads walk into a Korean grocery store downtown and kill four people in the course of robbing the place. Nothing out of the ordinary in gangland Los Angeles but the case ends up in SIS hands and Van Meter assigns it to Perry and Keough. They investigate the crime in their own inimitable way, threatening and abusing witnesses into co-operating but the case they're building doesn't point to a stick-up gone wrong. What they don't know is that the robbery was planned by Van Meter himself and the killers are a couple of his snitches. The case will make both Perry and Keough confront their feelings about what they're doing and strain their relationships with each other, their fellow officers and the women in their lives - Beth Williamson (Michael Michele), an idealistic black cop Keough's been dating and Perry's wife Sally (Lolita Davidovich) who has grown weary of her husband's depravity.
Dark Blue started life as an original screenplay by LA Confidential author James Ellroy called The Plague Season and was originally set during the Watts riots of 1965. The script was rewritten and the setting updated by David Ayer, who wrote Training Day. The hands of Ellroy and Ayer are both visible. Sgt Perry's ruthless methods and disregard for the law recall Training Day's Alonzo Harris and his relationship with his rookie partner is also reminiscent of that film, though it's more complicated here - Keough is no innocent and Perry isn't quite the monster Denzel Washington played. That's Ellroy's influence. In his world, there are no men in white hats, just lighter shades of grey. Even the basically decent Holland is a philanderer and an opportunist who uses the Rodney King situation to put himself forward as a potential black police chief. The only weak link is Brendan Gleeson's character, Jack Van Meter, who is drawn as a straightforward villain and is too similar to Dudley Smith, James Cromwell's character from LA Confidential and a figure in several Ellroy novels. Van Meter's actions don't always make sense - he has no qualms about ordering executions yet inexplicably spares the two robbers whose deaths would get him off the hook.
The director is Ron Shelton, which may come as a surprise if you associate him with sports comedies like Bull Durham and White Men Can't Jump but Shelton's worked as a political journalist and he wrote Under Fire, the 1983 drama about US intervention in Central America. He brings to the project the understanding of the macho male psyche that runs through all his films and he gives Dark Blue a strong, liberal viewpoint - the film's over-riding theme, perhaps pushed a little too hard, is that the riots were directly the result of the LAPD having too many cops like Eldon Perry. Still, Shelton is smart enough to show both sides of the story, Perry's being that the police have so many obstacles put in their way by lawyers and politicians that SIS has to step outside the law just to do its job and get dangerous criminals off the streets. Asked about the Rodney King beating, Perry argues that outlawing the chokehold caused cops to become too reliant on their batons as a means of subduing suspects. Not that the film condones Perry's behaviour for a second but at least Shelton and his writers have the intelligence to ask why a basically honest policeman would stoop to such tactics instead of just washing their hands and condemning him.
A part as rich as Perry demands a great performance and it gets one from Kurt Russell, one of Hollywood's most underappreciated talents. Russell uses his formidable charisma to make Perry entirely understandable and as sympathetic as his actions allow, which makes him all the more troubling. We're never allowed to dismiss him as a villain. Ving Rhames is also excellent, giving Holland the mixture of sincerity, cunning and bombast that an well-meaning but ambitious politician would have. As Keough, Scott Speedman is adequate though he's no match for Kurt Russell and he tends to fade into the background in their scenes together. Michael Michele is also a little too lightweight as Beth, though Lolita Davidovich does good work in a smaller role. Brendan Gleeson brings a subtle malevolence to Van Meter which makes the character seem more interesting than he is.
Despite its minor flaws, Dark Blue is a Hollywood cop thriller that's uncommonly intelligent, with a conclusion as satisfying as it is unexpected. It's a rare film nowadays that not only invites comparisons to the classic police films of William Friedkin (The French Connection, To Live And Die In LA) and Sidney Lumet (Serpico, Prince Of The City, Q&A) but deserves them.