Dark Blue opens on Eldon Perry (Kurt Russell), a third generation LAPD detective who looks nearly dead with fatigue and self loathing as he watches the Rodney King beating on TV in a dank hotel room. It’s a year after the fact and, like everyone else in Los Angeles, he’s waiting for the verdicts to be announced in the trials of the cops seen assaulting King.
The story then leaps back several days to find the city preparing for violence: the LAPD anticipates the worst street battles since the 1965 Watts riots. Perry is about to make Lieutenant in the SIS, an elite cadre of detectives used as a private army by Jack Van Meter (Brendan Gleeson). Russell’s new partner, Bobby Keough (Scott Speedman), is up for departmental review after shooting a suspect in his first weeks on the job. He passes, the one dissenting vote belonging to the board’s sole black member, Holland (Ving Rhames). Holland knows that something is being covered up and plans to use the case as a means of taking down Van Meter and the SIS.
These early scenes are about privilege and power, the assumption of white men with guns that they can do anything they want. The casual racism of their conversation and their smug assurance that they are always right is bracing. When Russell says, in Keough’s review, that the shooting was justified because, "End of the day, the bullets were in the bad guys," his self-righteousness is as frightening as his willingness to scrap due process.
Van Meter assigns Perry and Keough to investigate a crime that plays out against Keough’s hearing. Two thugs, one white and one black, raid a liquor store, killing the cashier and all the customers without bothering to empty the cash register. In classic James Ellroy fashion – he wrote the short story on which David Ayer (Training Day) based his screenplay – this seemingly senseless crime is the key to a densely plotted intrigue that has the potential to expose the fundamental corruption of the LAPD.
Ellroy may be the most ambitious crime writer since Raymond Chandler. Each new book doubles in length and takes on ever more vast conspiracies, all in plots so baroque that several of his best novels end with (absolutely necessary) chapter-length summaries. His prose has evolved from serviceably flat exposition into a weirdly idiosyncratic minimalism, all rat-a-tat bursts of three word sentence fragments. It’s an exhausting, mannered style, and it may work best as fodder for good film scripts. Once stripped of its self-conscious prose and labyrinthine plot, the film version of L.A. Confidential was able to build on the strengths of the book (Ellroy’s obsessive attention to the sadism inherent in police work, his drive to expose the workings of power in everyday life) to make a minor classic.
Director Ron Shelton is best known for beautifully acted sports films like Bull Durham and White Men Can’t Jump. (Has any other director ever gotten so much from the likes of Kevin Costner or Woody Harrelson?). He brings out the best in Russell. In most of his films, Russell is affable, not much more than an overgrown frat boy with a cocky grin. Here, he burrows into that easy charm. Perry is vicious, a man who greets his wife with, "You’re an alcoholic!" and cackles as he maces an innocent man just for the sadistic fun of it. His face is rigid, locked into a grim smile that radiates nothing like pleasure, and as the movie progresses it starts to look more and more like a death mask.
If the film is, finally, a failure, it’s because the strength of its best scenes is undermined by the sketchiness of its worst. The women are tossed off afterthoughts, either plot contrivances like Keough’s girlfriend Michael Michele or perfunctory attempts to show how the violence of the workday destabilizes cops’ home lives. And the ending looks even more ludicrous than it in fact is, since it follows the best material in the film, the brutally visceral scenes of looting and random racial violence after the verdicts are announced.
Dark Blue is anything but exploitation. This is the work of gifted filmmakers and writers attempting to grapple with events that still haunt the political life of Los Angeles. But by making its villains so vivid, it risks turning what began as a condemnation of the system that led to the King beating into the tale of some very bad individuals. In the end it’s a good cop movie that hints at how much more it could have been.