February 19, 2003

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Cop out
Dark Blue gets pretty black and white.

By Cheryl Eddy

LOS ANGELES, 1992. Four white policemen are on trial for brutalizing African American Rodney King. At the same time, the long, comfortably immoral career of another LAPD officer is crumbling, threatening an implosion that could rock the force even more than the controversial case. Or so supposes Dark Blue, which inserts fictional characters into real-life historical events, using the King verdicts and their aftermath to parallel the film's themes of police corruption and retribution.

Director Ron Shelton – veteran of multiple sports-themed flicks, including Bull Durham and Tin Cup – ain't one for subtlety; within the film's first few minutes, George Holliday's infamous video has already made an appearance. Even though Dark Blue's main focus, Special Investigations Squad officer Eldon Perry (Kurt Russell), is not involved in the King beating, the familiar footage offers a handy heads-up that racism, excessive violence, and other unsavory elements will soon follow.

And sure enough, Perry is given to all kinds of nasty habits after years in the SIS old boys club. "They should have wasted him," the casual bigot chuckles, referring to King. Perry is a valuable asset to his boss, SIS head Jack Van Meter (Brendan Gleeson), who relies on the abrasive hothead to carry out his dirty work – including roughing up suspects, framing and occasionally offing convenient fall guys, blackmailing district attorneys, and covering for the inexperienced, naive Bobby Keough (Scott Speedman), who is Van Meter's nephew and Perry's new partner.

A sinister veteran paired with a fresh-faced newcomer – sound familiar? Though Dark Blue draws from a story by crime writer James Ellroy (who also wrote the source material for 1997's L.A. Confidential, another dirty cop tale), its script was written by Training Day scribe David Ayer. Denzel Washington picked up an Oscar for playing the bad cop in that film, but Russell – for whom Ayer specially tailored the role of Perry – needn't clear any mantle space for this one.

You can't really blame Russell, though. His filmography represents 40 years of hard work and relatively little glory, from an early contract with Disney (The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes) to a long-standing collaboration with John Carpenter (Escape from New York, The Thing). He's played Elvis, an Elvis impersonator, Charles Whitman, Cash (of Tango and Cash), Captain Ron, and Wyatt Earp, plus he's notched multiple romantic-comedy turns with partner Goldie Hawn. His career longevity can probably be chalked up to the fact that he's unafraid to take roles in films that are often kindly deemed "guilty pleasures" (see Executive Decision, Overboard, or Tequila Sunrise). And he would seem a good fit for Perry, a lawless lawman who gets to spout lines like "Let's jack these motherfuckers right here and rattle some cages!"

But while Washington's Training Day character evolved from bad to worse to superscary – a transformation eminently enjoyable to witness – Russell's Perry has the unfortunate luck to discover partway through Dark Blue that he does, in fact, have a conscience; cue awakening of long-dormant desire to do the right thing. Of course, by the time this about-face occurs, his life is thoroughly entangled in a pile of bad shit: his wife (Lolita Davidovich) has just demanded a divorce, he has sussed out that Van Meter's two top informants may have committed a grisly multiple homicide during a convenience-store heist that isn't what it seems, and the steely-eyed assistant chief of police (Ving Rhames) is after his badge, with the help of an increasingly freaking-out Keough.

Meanwhile, the incendiary King verdicts are about to be read. The trial is ever present in the film – pre-robbery, Van Meter's pair of thugs debate the case; TVs in the backgrounds of various scenes show courtroom news coverage. But throughout, Perry's troubles are kept front and center, and it's never really clear why Dark Blue has such a specifically constructed sense of time and space. When the riots break out, Perry just happens to be taking care of business in South Central – a little too conveniently, his own world explodes at the exact time Los Angeles is beginning to burn. As Perry races through the chaotic streets to deliver a contrived, loose end-tying up speech in front of his colleagues, his family, and the camera-toting press, it becomes clear that Dark Blue's historically important setting is in place only to add meat to the bones of a pretty formulaic picture.

'Dark Blue' opens Fri/21 at Bay Area theaters. See Movie Clock, in Film listings, for show times.