"Dark Blue," a brooding, ambitious film about the struggle for the soul of an elite Los Angeles cop, has to struggle with its own soul as well. Sensitively directed by Ron Shelton and helped by what just might be the best performance of Kurt Russell's career, "Dark Blue" is as interesting and successful as it can be within its limits, but those limits make this a more generic film than its makers intended.
Russell apparently did not commit to "Dark Blue's" tale of rogue cops doing their worst against the backdrop of the first Rodney King trial and its aftermath until Shelton had signed on, and the finished product leaves no doubt that this was a wise move.
Though his first film as a writer was the political drama "Under Fire," Shelton is known for the character and personality focus of charming films including "Bull Durham" and "White Men Can't Jump," which he wrote and directed. He's brought a personal touch to "Dark Blue," which is always a good thing, but unfortunately the material he's bringing it to is not exactly receptive to his ministrations.
For "Dark Blue's" writing is the product of the intensely macho combination of "Training Day's" David Ayer, who did the screenplay, and "L.A. Confidential" novelist James Ellroy, who wrote the original story. The more-hard-boiled-than-a-five-minute-egg framework they've come up with doesn't blend well with Shelton's more reflective style, and the resulting standoff is not to the film's advantage.
Given that corrupt L.A. cops are pretty much the specialty of the house for both writers, it's no surprise that much of the plotting and characterization in "Dark Blue" has a been-there feeling to it, though at least here Shelton's newness to the material is an advantage. Set during a five-day period coincidentally leading up to the Rodney King verdict, "Dark Blue" focuses on an elite LAPD unit known as the Special Investigations Squad, SIS for short.
Led by the shadowy Jack Van Meter (the gifted Irish actor Brendan Gleeson, a wonderful choice), SIS is portrayed as a cocky, above-the-law group not too concerned with legal niceties. As Jack's right hand man, Eldon Perry (Russell), puts it, "At the end of the day the bullets are in the bad guys, not us," and that's all that seems to matter.
Not agreeing at all with that glib point of view is super-serious Assistant Chief Arthur Holland, a by-the-book spoilsport who is apparently that rare cop who actually believes in obeying the law. As played by Ving Rhames, Holland is such a glowering figure of rectitude he seems more like an Old Testament prophet than a policeman. When he and his No. 2, Beth Williamson (Michael Michele), declare war on SIS, you half expect the heavens to part with an awesome clap of thunder.
Kick-starting "Dark Blue's" plot is a convenience-store quadruple murder that Eldon Perry is called on to investigate with his partner, Bobby Keough ("Felicity's" Scott Speedman). Though he's the nephew of top guy Van Meter, Keough is an SIS rookie, and part of "Dark Blue's" intention is to detail how he reacts to the unit's macho codes and suspect morals.
What happens to Perry, Mr. Suspect Morals himself, is of greater interest. He's a crude and boyish guy, a prejudiced prankster who never grew up and treats his wife (Lolita Davidovich) as an afterthought. But there is also a confident and charismatic energy about the man that draws others into his orbit, the brio of someone who's sure he has the world by the short hairs and dares anyone to prove him wrong.
An actor for more than 40 years, Russell shows us things here he hasn't before, putting more of himself on the line to convey a complex personal reality. As happened with Kim Basinger in "L.A. Confidential," a lifetime of work and experience seem to have come together to make this role one to remember.
If Eldon Perry is more human than his type of character usually is, the rest of "Dark Blue" has trouble maintaining that standard. Despite its "ripped from today's headlines" intentions, the film is unconvincing at key moments, unsure in some of its attempts to add texture to other characters, not quite up to delivering on all its ambitions to be relevant. With sincerity and pulp fiction going toe to toe, there's simply too much bluster in this familiar scenario for even Shelton and Russell to successfully counteract.
MPAA rating: R for violence, language and brief sexuality.
Times guidelines: Some serious violence.
Kurt Russell ... Eldon Perry
Brendan Gleeson ... Jack Van Meter
Scott Speedman ... Bobby Keough
Michael Michele ... Beth Williamson
Lolita Davidovich ... Sally Perry
Ving Rhames ... Arthur Holland
United Artists and Intermedia Films present in association with IM Filmproduktion, an Alphaville Production, in association with Cosmic Pictures, released by United Artists. Director Ron Shelton. Producers Caldecot Chubb, David Blocker, James Jacks, Sean Daniel. Executive producers Moritz Borman, Guy East, Nigel Sinclair. Screenplay David Ayer. Story James Ellroy. Cinematographer Barry Peterson. Editor Paul Seydor. Costumes Kathryn Morrison. Music Terence Blanchard. Production design Dennis Washington. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.
In general release.
Under Ron Shelton's direction, the actor does some of the best work of his career, but the film's bluster is daunting.
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