One of the benefits of writing a review of a film the week after it came out is that unlike most critics who get a sneak preview and have to speculate how well it will do, I already know. “Dark Blue” did not open in first place, or even in the top five. In fact, it was at the bottom of the top 10, pulling in a measly $3.9 million over the weekend.
Movies like “Old School” and “Daredevil” dominated the weekend; most likely thanks to teenagers and college students who don’t discern the quality of the films they watch. It’s a shame, really, because they missed out on a film that’s actually good.
“Dark Blue” is a throwback to many police films of the ’70s mixed with modern techniques, and it is one of the most refreshingly taut and grim police dramas to come out in a long time.
Kurt Russell gives a knockout performance as Sgt. Eldon Perry, a police officer in Los Angeles’ Special Investigation Squad, a police unit that is in a way a twisted vigilante squad that routinely executes the suspected and covers up the murders. Perry is a bigot; a third generation law enforcement officer who’s taught who to hate by his father and grandfather.
As the film opens, he is covering up for a young officer he is training. The officer Bobby Keough, played by Scott Speedman, is being investigated for shooting a fleeing black suspect. Perry later nonchalantly tells his wife that it was he who killed the man, laughing as he recounts the story of how he had to cover for his partner and plant the gun on the unarmed man.
The fact that Perry is a racist is not just a gimmick for cheap drama. The movie takes place in 1992, just days before the verdict in the Rodney King beating trial, and the entire city is on edge awaiting the backlash. Despite supporting the officers, Perry tells Keough that if the four policemen walk, then “This city burns.”
It is during this tense atmosphere, that a brutal crime is committed in a neighborhood convenience store. Two robbers steal a safe hidden in the apartment above the store, and kill three unlucky shoppers and a store clerk who picked the wrong moment to be in the store. Perry is assigned to the case, one his boss Capt. Jack Van Meter wants wrapped up as quickly as possible, even if it means the wrong person gets the blame. Perry becomes especially suspicious when Van Meter becomes agitated at him when naming two men Perry believes are the most likely perpetrators of the crime.
At the same time, Deputy Chief Arthur Holland, played by Ving Rhames, is seeking to bring down Van Meter’s corrupt squad by any means necessary, and has an officer (Sgt. Beth Williamson, played with strong composure by actress Michael Michele) undercover to investigate Perry’s partner.
Holland feels an obligation to end the racial tensions in Los Angeles, and even turns down a guaranteed promotion to chief in Cleveland so he can stay and solve the problems in his hometown. He has selfish reasons for staying as well; he hopes becoming LA’s first black police chief will further his political career.
What follows is a story of conflicted ethics and loyalties. The climax finds Perry entering South Central just as the riots and looting begin. Perry becomes a man desperately looking for two killers right in the middle of hell, a hell that he and other police officers like him helped create through decades of abuse.
“Training Day” scribe David Ayer wrote the screenplay, and the similarities are glaring and obvious. Both have flawed and corrupt cops training a nave new recruit who is having ethical problems with their superiors. Director Ron Shelton, best known for helming sports films such as “Bull Durham” and “White Men Can’t Jump” actually manages to make a good convincing drama without all the pyrotechnics that usually populate this sort of film.
Having said that, the film is far from flawless. The two main black police officers, Holland and Williamson, give off an annoying “holier-than-thou” attitude throughout the film. It doesn’t matter that they’re right and Perry, Van Meter and Keough are wrong; they’re both so self-righteous it’s hard to sympathize with them.
Nor can you empathize with the looters who are robbing and destroying their own neighborhoods during the riot, thieves who are ignorant of the hypocrisies of their actions. Because of this, Perry is the defacto hero of the film, because he’s the only one who deals with his situation in a way that didn’t feel scripted or false to his character.
Another interesting issue is that Orchard and Sidwell, the two robbers, are black and white. This issue is not addressed in the film, which seems odd in a movie concerned with race relations. In fact, they have the only working relationship in the film where not only do they get along; race is completely a non-issue in their partnership.
While the grandstanding finale seems tacked on to give the film a nice, safe Hollywood ending, the film as a whole is a gritty and uncompromising look at a city whose ethics are planted firmly in the gray area. The movie’s final image is a not-so-subtle one as Perry watches the full results of racial intolerance in his city, perhaps for the first time looking into his own soul as well.