The incomprehensible mystery in Dark Blue isn’t who is the most crooked cop, but how could a movie blessed with so much proven talent and potential turn out to be such a dud? With a story by famous crime writer James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential) and a screenplay by David Ayer (who wrote last year’s brilliant Training Day, Denzel Washington’s Oscar vehicle), you’d think the plot would be foolproof.
Dark Blue director Ron Shelton also wrote and directed Bull Durham, one of my all-time favorites. It was easy to assume he’d bring similar depth and flawless timing to this cop tale already ripe for powerful development. The acting talent also suggested positive things: Topping expectations is Kurt Russell in the lead. Perhaps like me, you think Russell (Escape From New York) is one of our best, underused actors.
Underscoring these elements is an exciting, barely tapped theme — the terrible 1992 riots in South Central L.A., triggered by the acquittal of the four cops in the Rodney King beating case. While the city exploded in five days of racial violence, leaving 52 dead and 1,300 hospitalized, and facing a billion dollars in property damage, the upper echelon of L.A.’s “heroes in blue” were so unprepared for the worst civil disturbance of the 20th century that there was no police response for many hours.
Alas, except for the (truly) terrifying re-enactment of the riots and despite the inherent drama in a corrupt cop story with its requisite violence and car chases, Dark Blue is a snoozer. Instead of being an insightful tale about racism and institutionalized evil, the film is fraught with cardboard characters, gratuitous killing and a rambling, confusing story full of holes big enough to swallow a Humvee. (Let’s not overlook the tired cliche of the oh-so-neglected cop wives, inanely doing scenes in underwear or inappropriate bosom-jiggling dresses.)
Russell plays Sgt. Eldon Perry Jr., a cynical third-generation shoot-first/ask-questions-later cop in the elite SIS (Special Investigation Squad). Scott Speedman (TV’s Felicity) stars as his rookie partner, who though naive and idealistic, has allowed himself to lie about a police shooting. Both men are caught in the web of corruption woven by their malevolent commander (Brendan Gleeson, Gangs of New York). Ving Rhames (Undisputed) portrays a cop trying to bring the corruption to light and make himself the first black LAPD chief.
When a Koreatown grocery is robbed and bystanders shot dead by two vicious creeps, Russell and Speedman’s characters take over the case. They discover a grimy Asian underworld, rough up some homeboys (including rapper Master P) and quickly identify the scum responsible for the crime. To the rookie’s shock, instead of being praised and told to arrest the suspects by their commander, he orders them to ignore their findings.
Perry proceeds to find two lowlifes who never received punishment for other crimes and gets a crooked judge to issue a search warrant. The SWAT team conveniently kills one hapless offender. In the circle of a searchlight from a police helicopter hovering overhead, the other man, unarmed, begs for his life, but Perry’s partner kills him anyway.
By this time, you’ve lost all sympathy for these monsters behind the badge, so when they start mending their ways, you just don’t care. You’re glad they’re headed for a bullet of retribution or a locked cell.