Movie review, 'Dark Blue'

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At its heart, "Dark Blue" is a disaster movie.

In "Titanic," everyone is waiting for the boat to sink. In the corrupt-cop drama "Dark Blue," we're waiting for the city to burn in the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Ultimately, we know the film's denouement will be wrapped in flames after a jury delivers a not-guilty verdict in the Rodney King beating trial. It's an obvious metaphor for the consequences of institutional moral decay, but the uninspired structure of "Dark Blue" leaves the film to simmer where it should sizzle.

Kurt Russell stars as Eldon Perry, an alcoholic detective with a record of violence, shady arrests and trigger-happy incidents. He is L.A.'s self-appointed crime janitor, like his father before him, who sees getting dirty as part of the job. Fresh off a questionable shooting, his rookie partner Bobby Keough (Scott Speedman) isn't so sure of his footing outside the academy.

Cops aren't above the law, he learns, but sometimes they operate outside it.

Brendan Gleeson ("Gangs of New York") plays Jack Van Meter, Perry's bullying superior who keeps him on a short leash. Having served with Perry's father on the force, Van Meter retains a god-like status in Perry's mind -- an Old Testament figure of wrath whose judgement and motives are not to be challenged.

When Van Meter orders Perry and his partner to investigate multiple murders during a neighborhood robbery, his message is clear: Clean it up fast. In other words, there are crimes and there are criminals, and sometimes cops need to pound a square peg in a round hole if the two don't exactly match up. Perry sees it as his job to do the pounding.

Assistant Chief Arthur Holland (Ving Rhames) aims to bring down Van Meter's regime -- if he can outlive the skeletons in his own closet.

Based on an original script called "The Plague Season" by noir crime novelist James Ellroy ("L.A. Confidential"), "Dark Blue" has a familiar landscape. Although rewritten by David Ayer ("Training Day"), the movie seethes with Ellroy's recurring themes of tough cops in a soul-tainting job, casual corruption and nonchalant violence.

Ellroy uses Perry to ask what's worse -- a bad cop or a corrupt one. And where does the line lay?

Russell, coming off some of the strongest performances of his career in the low-profile "Breakdown" and "Vanilla Sky," comes back into star status as Perry. Gruff, street-weary and amoral, Perry has good intentions, but the sins of the father are revisited on the son, and the grown son might not have the introspective skills to grow past it. In the end, director Ron Shelton wants "Dark Blue" to be "L.A. Confidential" so badly that it's palpable.

Although the perspective is changed, both stories still feature two young cops -- Keough and love interest Beth (Michael Michele) -- who work together to bring down their crooked superiors. Planted photographs, department loyalties and bloody gun fights define both films.

Unlike the intrigue and winding switchback of moral mysteries that defined "L.A. Confidential," "Dark Blue" travels on flat, predictable terrain. Within the first five minutes of film, the audience already knows who everyone is, what their crimes and angles are, and how the rest of the drama will unfold. It takes a full 90 minutes of waiting for the punch to connect (or, in this case, the city to burn). As a dramatic device, Shelton uses the riots as a telegraphed, ready-made parallel that feels more contrite than its characters -- and history itself -- deserves.

2 1/2 stars (out of 4) "Dark Blue"
Directed by Ron Shelton; screenplay by David Ayer, story by James Ellroy; photographed by Barry Peterson; edited by Paul Seydor; produced by Caldecot Chubb, David Blocker, James Jacks, Sean Daniel. An United Artists release; opens Friday, Feb. 21. Running time: 1:56. MPAA rating: R (violence, language and brief sexuality).
Eldon Perry Jr. -- Kurt Russell
Jack Van Meter -- Brendan Gleeson
Bobby Keough -- Scott Speedman
Arthur Holland -- Ving Rhames
Beth Williamson -- Michael Michele Robert K. Elder is a Tribune staff writer.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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