Rising Lieutenant Eldon Perry is a dirty cop. And a badass. Despite the obvious parallels, though, he is not a modern day Bud White and that's an important distinction to make going in.
Perry is the son of a son of a police officer, a man who seemingly exists solely to fight the demons given faces at the headquarters of his special police strike force in Los Angeles. This degenerative state was foreshadowed by the events of author James Ellroy's prior dirty cop effort, L.A. Confidential, but it's unreasonable to compare Dark Blue to a modern masterpiece. If we instead judge the film solely on its own merit, this is solid effort from director Ron shelton. Though it does have a few missteps along the way, the overall piece is laudable.
Dark Blue is set in the days leading up to the Rodney King verdict in April, 1992. The racial tension palpable in the city at the time is successfully used for dramatic effect throughout the film. While some have argued it's too easy a setting for a film about the struggle to be a good cop in a bad place, I find the execution of this choice superlative. Even the extras seem inspired by this motivation to give unusual effort to sell the mood. At no point in watching Dark Blue was I ever brought out of the world by anachronistic behavior. For someone as picky as me, that's an accomplishment.
The story revolves around Perry and his partner Bobby Keough (Scott Speedman in a meticulously measured performance) as they try to dole out justice in a city facing civil war with the battle lines drawn by a person's skin color. Perry has long since given his soul in exchange for the upholding of hid complicated belief system. To him, getting the right criminal thrown in jail is irrelevant as long as a criminal is convicted.
This chilling display of situational ethics creates an internal schism in Bobby. The newbie on the elite squadron is an inexperienced kid torn between his hero worship of his mentor and the knowledge that what Eldon does is in itself criminal behavior. Bobby has a much more rudimentary and thereby intuitive belief system. He has already witnessed his partner execute a man as the movie begins, and has grown to realize Eldon subconsciously sneers at him for this display of cowardice/compassion.
The other problem Bobby has developed involves new girlfriend Beth. She is an officer who could create problems from a professional perspective if he embraces the actions of Eldon; moreover, she is black, and Bobby knows all too well what his uncle, Jack Van Meter, and his mentor, Eldon, think of black people on an average day. Considering the white hot glare of the spotlight the L.A. Police force faces during the days of the Rodney King trial, he knows they need to not find out about his secret lover. Unfortunately for the kid, one of the underlying themes of Dark Blue is that there are no secrets for members of the City of Angels police force.
The proof of this involves Beth and her boss, Arthur Holland (Ving Rhames is majestic here). Their long forgotten affair of five years ago is the main impediment in his attempts to become police chief of the city.
If Holland's political ambitions aren't stopped, his wife will be given pictures of the illicit encounters between Arthur and Beth. Holland's feud with his racist associate Van Meter is cleverly underlined with infrequent dialogue and constant dirty looks. But the best aspect of this plot development is the inclusion of BOP fave Khandi Alexander in a glorified cameo as Mrs. Holland. Her entire purpose in the film is apparently to shoot looks of disgust at all of the law enforcement officials she sees, and she steals all of these scenes with her haughty glances of moral superiority.
Mirroring her is Lolita Davidovich as Eldon's wife, Sally. She is used to offer some important but awkwardly forced dialogue to explain the man Perry might have been as opposed to the man he became. Her resounding confidence that he is beyond repair, while damning, is a bit too much in its context. Even so, this is one of her finest acting efforts.
Dark Blue lives or dies by Eldon Perry though, and Kurt Russell again proves himself to be one of the most criminally underappreciated actors of his generation. Still impossibly boyish looking at his advanced age, the former Disney star boldly embraces his character's convoluted ethics.
This complicated portrayal makes a man lacking any redeeming qualities somehow manage to be for lack of a better word charming. Given Russell's bravado, it is easy to accept why his fellow officers would look up to this man's man. It's equally simple to understand why his superior officers would be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt each time he is brought before the review board to explain yet another shooting.
The only complaint I have about the film other than the awkward delivery of some of Sally's dialogue involves the climax. After an exceptional sequence involving the pursuit of villainous street thugs Orchard (rapper Kurupt) and Sidwell (Dash Mihok), the film unexpectedly veers toward the preachy as director Ron Shelton overreaches a bit. His attempt to neatly tie up all of the preceding events with a nice shiny ribbon feels completely out of place with the morally ambiguous tone of the rest of Dark Blue. Were it not for this glaring misstep, the movie would be one of my favorite films of the year.
Fortunately, Russell's effort as a lost boy scout confused by a world that has become far too complicated is my favorite male lead acting performance of the year to date. It's also the impetus for my recommendation of Dark Blue. While the movie is too often unjustly compared to L.A. Confidential, a task only a handful of films each decade could handle, Dark Blue manages to do the impossible. It stands alone as a more modern update on the same themes of that classic without feeling like a cheap imitation. That's an impressive achievement all things considered.
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