Dark Blue

Dark Blue

USA, 2003. Rated R. 115 minutes.

Cast: Kurt Russell, Scott Speedman, Ving Rhames, Brendan Gleeson, Michael Michele, Lolita Davidovich, Kurupt, Jamison Jones
Writers: David Ayer (screenplay), James Ellroy (story)
Music: Terence Blanchard
Cinematographer: Barry Peterson
Producers: David Blocker, Caldecot Chubb, Sean Daniel, James Jacks
Director: Ron Shelton


Grade: B- Review by Carlo Cavagna

Read the AboutFilm feature article and interviews with cast and crew.

We all know what a bad movie cop is. He shoots without provocation; he plants guns; he searches without warrants; he beats witnesses; he lies to inquiry boards; and he is assigned to investigate crimes by the very people who orchestrated them. Oh, and he visits strips clubs--actually good cops do this, too, because movie investigations always lead to strip clubs. The team of Sergeant Eldon Perry (Kurt Russell) and Officer Bobby Keough (Scott Speedman) manage all of these questionable accomplishments in just a couple of days. Maybe it's naïve, but it's difficult not to see Perry, the instigator, as an appalling exaggeration. You fervently hope real-life cops can't be so blatant with their misdeeds. (Can they??)

With broad strokes, Dark Blue establishes the badness of these cops. Later, Dark Blue also gives us an ungainly conclusion typical of movies with a point to make. Characters realize the errors of their ways, crusaders are vindicated, and the forces of good are victorious--but not before somebody pays with his or her life, preferably after he or she has been redeemed, and--of course--a big public speech by the protagonist. In this case, the speech is full of the sort of background information that should have come much earlier in the film.

There's a larger storytelling purpose here, though. Even the most moronic of moviegoers must get it. No matter how evil the criminals are, these cops are no better. This is, after all, a studio film that addresses Big Issues. One of the biggest differences between major-studio dramas and independents is that the studios abhor subtlety and ambiguity. The studios believe that films must have a moral purpose. Well… dramas, anyway. Biker Boyz is excused from having a moral purpose.

Yet, despite all of this, writer David Ayer (Training Day, The Fast and the Furious) and director Ron Shelton (Bull Durham, Tin Cup) are trying to tell an ambiguous story with complex characters. Kurt Russell and Ving RhamesSandwiched between the crude exposition and overcooked ending, some interesting things occur.

Obviously inspired by real-world events and scandals, Dark Blue takes on police corruption in Los Angeles against a daring backdrop--the days leading up to the verdict in the Rodney King trial, including a harrowing climax juxtaposed with the riots that occurred in wake of the acquittal of the four police officers tried for brutalizing King. As the trial places difficult pressures on the entire police department, Perry and Keough must clear a multiple homicide while also withstanding scrutiny from reform-minded and ambitious Assistant Chief of Police Holland (Ving Rhames). He is determined to bring down their crooked boss, Jack Van Meter (Brendan Gleeson), who doesn't much care on whom Perry and Keough pin the crime, as long as it's not the guys who actually did it. Perry must also contend with the usual cop-movie domestic problems--disaffected wife (Lolita Davidovich), neglected kid, etc.

Russell delivers a solid, character-driven performance in an unusual role for him, demonstrating that he still offers something to the movies as long as he avoids crap like Soldier. As his inexperienced partner with misgivings, ex-Felicity star Speedman is no Ethan Hawke in a similar role in Training Day (also by Ayer), but he is acceptable. The principal members of the supporting cast (Gleeson, Rhames, and Davidovich) are solid, particularly Rhames, who is a powerful performer despite his vocal limitations. Michael Michele, however, is not credible as Holland's assistant and Keough's love interest, primarily because she's too beautiful, which you could say is more the fault of genetics and the make-up artist than her own. She has played cops before, however, appearing as a regular on Homicide: Life on the Street.

Perry is the focus of Dark Blue despite Keough, as the neophyte fighting an internal war over what Perry and Van Meter (his uncle) tell him to do, making a more natural protagonist. Dark Blue does follow Keough closely, but making the film primarily about his journey would have brought Dark Blue even closer to Training Day.

Casting the generally likeable Russell as Perry helps Dark Blue, because most moviegoers are used to rooting for him. His character is abhorrent, but he genuinely believes he's doing good for the city. Because it's Russell, one hopes he'll see the light--even though it's difficult to believe that a hardened character like Perry is capable of change without some seriously strong prodding. Russell has said that he wanted Perry to be understood, and not be one-dimensional. Within the confines of a sometimes heavy-handed screenplay, Russell's portrayal largely accomplishes this.

Dark Blue is flawed, and its component narrative elements are simplistic. Nonetheless it is an often gripping film. The characters are defined well enough that viewers can gloss over some of the story's weaknesses. Visually, Dark Blue goes for gritty realism, opening with jittery camcorder-style footage of the Rodney King beating itself. At the other end of the film, the staging of the climactic action amid the riots is extremely compelling--unlike any other crime-drama action sequence you're likely to see, and unusual work from a director known for sports movies. It's a shame, really, that Dark Blue leans so heavily on inelegant cop-movie clichés and the dreaded Big Speech. Not only are they unnecessary, but they diminish the power of the story by reminding you that it's all just a movie.

Review © February 2003 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2003 Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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