It’s Los Angeles in April 1992. The infamous Rodney King beating has the Los Angeles Police Department on the ropes and the entire city on edge. One year earlier, the videotape of four white officers pummeling the unarmed black man after a car chase created an international uproar. The policemen were charged with a handful of crimes. A verdict is due any day now, and the tightly ratcheted crime story Dark Blue is propelled by a gnawing apprehension and even fear of what lies ahead for a city that is poised to self-destruct.
With racial tension smoldering dangerously close to flash point, a black man and a white man in black hoods enter a mom and pop store in Koreatown. They shoot five people and cart away a small wall safe. Four bodies are carted to the morgue. The sole surviving witness can identify only the races of the bandits.
The case appears to be just another typical shoot and loot until elite cop unit detectives Eldon Perry (Kurt Russell) and Bobby Keough (Scott Speedman) are assigned to investigate. What are the veteran street cowboy and his raw apprentice doing out of their usual jurisdiction? That question soon gets wrapped around its own ankles as the unit’s white boss (Brendan Gleeson) and the city’s black assistant police chief, Arthur Holland (Ving Rhames), butt heads amid law-enforcement and judicial systems teeming with corruption and bigotry.
Dark Blue is a mostly gripping tale of two men who try to wrest themselves from the dark corners of a soiled system and a cycle of violence perpetrated and passed down from generation to generation in the name of expedient justice for us all. David Ayer (Training Day) based the script on a story by James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential). It’s generally familiar material about the domino effect of greed, abuse of power, and racial hatred that contains just as many exhilarating and fresh moments as flaws and that includes such sidebars as the misuse of informers and the notorious divorce rate of cops.
Some powerful dialogue is given to the women in the film (Holland’s and Perry’s wives and Keough’s lover), and the one-on-one interplay between the four excellent male leads is often rich in emotion and stunningly candid. These scenes are offset by clichéd cop work—“Let’s jack these motherfuckers right here and rattle some cages,” says Perry before one shakedown—some preachy monologues, a key thematic character who pops up as if most of his previous scenes were unintentionally cut from the film, and an ending that only its author could love.
Director Ron Shelton has made some entertaining (Tin Cup and Bull Durham) and listless (Play It to the Bone) comic sports movies. He also has tackled issues of race and bigotry (White Men Can’t Jump and Cobb) and shootouts (3000 Miles to Graceland). Here, he keeps the action at an intense level and gives the proceedings effective cinéma vérité grit. His vision of the riots set off by the King verdict are the most hallucinatory scenes of chaos since the baseball-diamond gang fight in Philip Kaufman’s The Wanderers. And he makes the most of the soaring, moaning trumpet and jazz/acid-jazz/ballad sound score of Terence Blanchard.
Richard Gere boosted his sagging career with an appearance in Internal Affairs as the rogue officer who smothers his own wounded partner to hide his crimes, to the wail of an approaching ambulance. Harvey Keitel personified an open wound as the Earth’s most rotten cop in Bad Lieutenant. Ray Liotta chewed up the scenery in Illegal Entry and Narc as a cop with a chip on both shoulders. Now Russell makes the strongest appearance of his checkered career as Perry, a human Molotov cocktail of ruthlessness and charm who focuses his life on the people he hates rather than the people he loves.
There’s a scene in Dark Blue in which Perry stands atop the City of Angels and looks across its burning, smoking sprawl. It feels like a snapshot from hell. And Dark Blue reminds us that some of us have already been there and back.