“Dark Blue” is not your typical Ron Shelton movie. Who knew that Shelton, known mostly for light human drama in the guise of Sports Movies like “Bull Durham” and “White Men Can’t Jump”, could direct such an intense police drama like “Dark Blue”? I certainly didn’t.
Set against real-life events that took place in L.A. back in 1991, “Dark Blue” tells the fictional story of Eldon Perry (Kurt Russell), a good cop who has gone very bad a long time ago. In his own mind, Perry is still doing a cop’s job, which is to bring in the bad guys at all costs. But somewhere along the way Perry has come under the thumb of Jack Van Meter (Brendan Gleeson), a high-ranking bureaucrat who runs the elite police unit that Perry leads. Van Meter is untrustworthy and wholly evil, and there’s no two ways about it.
After two criminals slaughter their way through a liquor store robbery, Van Meter assigns Perry and his young partner Bobby (Scott Speedman) to investigate. But it’s not the real culprits that Van Meter wants, it’s patsies. While Perry is trying to serve Van Meter and keep Bobby under control, Assistant Police Chief Holland (Ving Rhames) is trying to bring Van Meter down to further his own career. The question is, who will get to whom first, and who will survive the L.A. riots that’s building up steam like a vengeful God in the background.
“Dark Blue” is a terrific film, and has the gritty and hardcore feel of last year’s “Training Day”. The two films are actually very similar — both has the premise of a young idealistic cop partnered up with a brutal and bad veteran cop. (Of the two, “Day” is clearly the more honest and hard-to-take.) It isn’t long before Bobby is starting to have doubts about Perry and the job, and he turns to Beth (Michael Michele), who is Holland’s assistant, for help. (Yes, “Michael” Michele is a woman. And no, her parents’ reasons for giving her that name isn’t progressive, it’s just dumb.)
Kurt Russell (“Soldier”) gives, without a doubt, his best performance to date. This film, and “The Thing”, marks his best work as an actor, not a movie star. He’s on target here, bridging the thin gap between bad and good cop effortlessly. Russell’s Perry comes from a long line of cops (or “gunfighters”, as he puts it), and it’s genetics more than anything that pushes him to the edge. To be honest, Perry isn’t really a bad cop, or even a bad guy. He’s just a man who needs to see justice done, and if he has to lie to himself so he can sleep at nights, he’ll do it. The phrase “the ends justifies the means” is everything to a man like Perry.
The only other actor in “Dark Blue” that matches up to Russell’s intensity is Brendan Gleeson (“28 Days Later”) as the vile bureaucrat Van Meter. Gleeson is the epitome of evil, a man who has forgotten all about law and order and only cares about profits and maintaining the status quo. In the end, it’s Gleeson’s Van Meter that is Perry’s real enemy. As the crusading cop, Ving Rhames (“Undisputed”) barely registers; his character has so little to do that I’m not even sure why an actor of Rhames’ caliber would take such a small and uninteresting role in the first place.
The screenplay by David Ayer (who also wrote “Training Day”) is based on a story by James Ellroy (“L.A. Confidential”) and it gives no one easy outs. Perry is a cop who gets things done but is a miserable human being by every other account; crusader Holland is an adulterer and a man driven by ambition; and the participants of the L.A. riots are violent thugs, thieves, and opportunists rather than civil rights protestors. At one point, even the victim of a liquor store hold-up turns out to be a pimp trafficking in young girls.
Which leads me to this conclusion: there really is no good reason why the film is set in 1991 and during the Rodney King incident. I don’t understand the use of real-life events of that time or how it is necessary to the story at hand. Germane, perhaps, but not completely necessary. The film could have worked just fine as a straight, fictional police drama ala “Training Day”. Why exploit a subject that, 12 years later, is still a sore spot among a lot of people?
Ron Shelton (director) / James Ellroy (story), David Ayer (screenplay)
CAST: Kurt Russell …. Det. Sgt. Eldon Perry Jr.
Scott Speedman …. Det. Bobby Keough
Michael Michele …. Beth Williamson
Brendan Gleeson …. Jack Van Meter
Kurupt …. Darrell Orchard
Ving Rhames …. Arthur Holland