DARK BLUE —–Los Angeles, April of 1992. As the city tenses for the verdict to come in on the four white policemen who beat down African-American car-chase suspect Rodney King, other members of the L.A.P.D. deal with their own crises involving crime, race and interpreting “the Code”. As one of the advertising tag lines had it “Sworn to protect / Sworn to serve / Sworn to secrecy.”
Hardened veteran detective and unabashed rule-breaker ‘Sgt.Eldon Perry’ (Kurt Russell) and fresh, possibly skittish partner ‘Bobby Keough’ (Scott Speedman) are tasked with investigating a robbery/multiple homicide, on orders from their bluntly confident superior officer, ‘Jack Van Meter’ (Brendan Gleeson). Keen to move up and determined to pin swaggering Perry & smug Van Meter with corruption, simmering ‘Asst.Chief Arthur Holland’ (Ving Rhames) uses ‘Sgt. Beth Williamson’ (Michael Michele) in his pursuit. She’s got her own smolder going, involved with the compromised Bobby. Racial animus, career trajectory, turf battles, sidewalk justice and bedroom alignments run smack into the greater maelstrom of the city’s ethnic fuse, about to be lit into a firestorm.
Written by street-smart David Ayer (Training Day, End Of Watch), who reworked an original script by James Ellroy, directed by Ron Shelton, this incisive, profane, gripping and true-to-the-street bruiser pulled good reviews but could not find an audience, its weak gross of $12,150,000—a crippling 145th place for the year–against a cost of $15,000,000 marking it a lost cause. Falling into the shade of the flashier Training Day and arriving on scene with the well-done Narc and the first seasons of TVs superb The Shield and The Wire, this caustic and painful scab-rip fell through the cracks. Too bad, as while it lacks the running-time depth allowed those grade-A series, it’s a more honest and realistic take than the other feature films.
Avoiding extraneous phony action scenes like illogical shootouts and impractical car chases, the few violent moments are not used as props, and are accomplished with a dispassionate dispatch that renders their brutality more dramatically effective. The one big, crucial climactic action sequence—a wild and scary rush of escape through the nightmarish Ground Zero of the riot—is splendidly staged, shot and sensed.
Direction, writing, editing and camera are all commendable, and the cast make the sale. Gleeson and Rhames square off with intensity, and a stunning Michele heats up her contribution; this savvy and sexy actress deserved a bigger film career. Speedman is just okay, there are small but strong moments from Lolita Davidovich and Khandie Alexander as the long-suffering wives of Russell and Rhames. But front and center the acting honors go to a white-hot Kurt Russell, who drops any trace of ego-protecting inhibition and charges headlong into one of the most bracing and felt performances of his long and varied career. Hats off.
In a society perpetually riven by racial strife, you’re never going to get a completely honest and balanced mass audience take on the subject, as someone on one side or another of the given palette, poised for affirmation or rejection, will feel slighted if the result doesn’t jibe with their experience. Likewise, exploratory surgery on a particular, high profile profession–one that has life & death consequences for those outside as well as in it–will likely grate partisan to one degree or another (this goes for documentaries as well as fiction). Cops, lawyers, the clergy, doctors, teachers, the military? You can’t win for losing.
This raw and angry lament on festering divisions baked into the system at least gives it a good push; it may be that its lackluster box-office response was due to a frazzled populace already car-jacked or pepper-sprayed into resentful acquiescence of a bleak status quo.
With Master P, Kurupt, Dash Mihok, Jonathan Banks. 118 minutes.