If they were still making westerns, the plot of “Dark Blue” would feel right at home. It’s about an aging gunslinger on the trail of murderous bandits in a vast wasteland. This time, the gunslinger is a Sergeant with the LAPD, the bad guys are gang members and the wasteland is most of urban Los Angeles.
The Sergeant is Eldon Perry (Kurt Russell), a rogue cop who, at the start of the film, we see testifying in support of his young apprentice, Bobby Keough (Scott Speedman), a young Special Investigations Officer facing an Internal Affairs panel over Keough’s use of lethal force against a suspect. It’s 1992, days before the Rodney King verdict and the riots that will follow. The cops are all on edge, expecting war. The distraught Keough gets a pass from the panel except for a lone holdout: a black assistant police chief named Holland (Ving Rhames) who doesn’t believe Keough’s story. It doesn’t matter since Keough has his uncle, a sinister police chief named Van Meter (Brendan Gleeson), to protect him. Van Meter worked with Perry’s father back “in the good old days” and now young Keough is beholden to Perry.
The eerie specter of the 1992 riots hangs over the story as Keough and Perry are sent to investigate a quadruple homicide at a Korean shop, the two killers being a black man and a white man (was director Ron Shelton afraid of the implications of having the killers both being black or would that have ruined the film’s thesis which is that all white cops are evil while their black counterparts are brave and virtuous?). Perry tracks down one of the assailants, but Van Meter urges Perry to pin the crime on two other men, a couple of lowlifes who are just as guilty yes, just not of the crime in question. Perry’s transformation has already begun.
“Dark Blue” is a very ambitious police thriller that aspires to plum the depths of the other great films in the genre like To Live and Die in L.A., “Prince of the City” and, one of the best, “Internal Affairs.” To be more exact, “Dark Blue” simultaneously wants to 1) demystify the modern cop thriller; 2) rip apart the legal system, especially in terms of how cops apply the law to minorities; 3) it also wants to identify the real causes of the 1992 riots. Given these ambitions, I guess director Ron Shelton would be disappointed by the fact that he’s just made an entertaining action-thriller, nothing more, nothing less. It gets the job done, but it’s not comparable with the other great films in the genre.
I recommend “Dark Blue” because I felt I learned something about the world in which it takes place, a Los Angeles that is bursting with raw racial tensions and which, for the most part, is segregated as hell. The film also features a good central performance by Kurt Russell as the burned out, morally challenged Perry. “Dark Blue” has been described as a comeback for Russell, but I think it’s just a solid piece of work for the actor who’s derailed his career recently with such garbage as “Soldier” and 3000 Miles to Graceland. Here, in the body of a rogue cop, Russell shows the charm and crazed intensity that made him so much fun to watch in the first place.
I also recommend “Dark Blue” for a cynical reason, that being its sarcastic view of cops. If this were an important film, if it were anything more than what it is (an entertaining machine), I would be seriously outraged by how “Dark Blue” brandishes all white police officers as being corrupt and evil. Where’s the film’s courage in the scene with the black and white killers in the Korean store? I don’t know many white people who would’ve been seen around downtown Los Angeles or South Central during the heat of the King verdict. Would Rhames’ character, Holland, have been anymore sympathetic towards Keough if Keough were a minority? Does the racial identity of Keough’s shooting victim matter? Of course it does, especially if it’s a white cop shooting a black man, but the film gives no real explanation why. If the real message of “Dark Blue” is to express outrage over the King verdict and the videotaped beating, where’s the outrage over the Reginald Denny beating and that subsequent acquittal and the violence that occurred in urban Los Angeles in which most of the victims were minorities?
I also had a problem with the ending where Russell’s character, about to be promoted, decides to spill the beans and clear his soul regarding his illegal activities. The fact that Russell’s cop character would want to confess his crimes speaks more, I think, to the liberal beliefs of the film-makers than to the IQ of Russell’s character. Do you think Russell’s cop character would want to be in the same prison with the crooks he put away? It’s shocking how much “Dark Blue” hates cops.