Dark Blue

on February 21, 2003 by Mark Keizer
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In the 1993 Western saga "Tombstone," Kurt Russell played frontier sheriff Wyatt Earp, who in real life was a man of good intentions constantly accused of bending the law to suit his own agenda. In director Ron Shelton's "Dark Blue," he plays a similar character, here updated for the Rodney King generation.

As the film begins, it is 1992 and Los Angeles awaits the King verdicts. Those on both sides of the law believe that if the four white officers are acquitted of beating the black motorist, "this city will burn." While Angelenos hold their breath, rookie Special Investigations Officer Bobbie Keough (Scott Speedman) sits in front of an Internal Affairs panel, justifying his use of deadly force in an earlier incident. Testifying on his behalf is his partner, veteran SIS officer Eldon Perry (Kurt Russell), who fudges the facts to get Keough off the hook. Perry is a short-tempered old pro who doesn't care how bad guys go down, as long as bad guys go down. His tactics are not appreciated by Assistant Police Chief Holland (Ving Rhames), who vows to topple Perry and his boss, Van Meter (Brendan Gleeson).

Later, two punks (one white, one black) break into a South Central liquor store, kill four patrons and steal the store safe. When Perry fingers the two perpetrators (one played by rapper Kurupt), Van Meter tells Perry to pin the rap on two bad, but nonetheless innocent, people. Normally, Perry takes Van Meter's orders without question, but this time, he begins to rethink his philosophy. And once the King verdicts come in, he realizes his tactics are not what's best for the force, the public or his own conscience.

Since network TV shows like "Law and Order" and "NYPD Blue" raise the bar weekly on compelling police sagas, "Dark Blue" suffers for relying on steadfast cop movie conventions. Especially egregious is the final sequence, which takes place at Perry's promotion ceremony--a perfect location for the main character to give his Big Speech while the other major characters in attendance (including Perry's estranged wife, played by Lolita Davidovich) huff and puff in disbelief.

Kurt Russell gives his usual professional, watchable performance, but he's such a Movie Cop that whatever deeper intentions Shelton has for the character don't come through. Russell is just not that internal an actor. Speedman, best known for his work on the TV show "Felicity," is all hunk and wavy hair, unable to give anything more than what's on the page. In fact, imagine Russell and Speedman in the Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke roles in "Training Day" and you get an idea of how crucial casting is in these kinds of movies. Elsewhere, the always-welcome Rhames comes across as overly serious while Davidovich scores points for providing a different flavor, as Perry's long-suffering wife.

As for Shelton, "Dark Blue" is his first non-sports-related directing effort since 1989's "Blaze." It's quite clear where he stands on the King beating and the culture at Parker Center that spawned the four negligent officers. Shelton has definitely been watching the TV show "Cops," as well as other, better, grittier films. Here he tries to take the '40s-style hard-boiled cop melodrama (complete with Terence Blanchard's trumpet-propelled score) and mix in a dollop of topicality (complete with rap music and a track by Porno for Pyros). The result never quite works. It also hurts that writers David Ayer and James Ellroy have covered this ground more effectively before. Ayer's script for "Training Day" has the same veteran cop/rookie cop dynamic, while Ellroy's magnificent "L.A. Confidential" also featured the same generational layering of responsibility and guilt.

Still, the film sports quite a few effective moments, like the initial robbery/murder that sets the plot in motion. Also good is the scene right after the King verdicts are announced, with Russell driving through a bombed-out South Central while angry looters converge on his car. On the whole, "Dark Blue" is quite watchable and occasionally electric, but its deeper intentions remain submerged, struggling against cop movie clich├ęs that even an average episode of "Law and Order" manages to avoid. Starring Kurt Russell, Scott Speedman, Brendan Gleeson, Lolita Davidovich and Ving Rhames. Directed by Ron Shelton. Written by David Ayer. Produced by Caldecot Chubb, David Blocker, James Jacks and Sean Daniel. A United Artists release. Drama. Rated R for violence, language and brief sexuality. Running time: 118 min.

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