In the tumultuous cop picture Dark Blue (MGM), Kurt Russell plays the brutal, racist Sgt. Eldon Perry Jr., and that "Jr." isn't incidental: Perry comes from a proud line of Los Angeles enforcers. The senior Perry schooled him in hate, and he's disarmingly sanguine about the need for pre-emptive strikes against miscreants. At a hearing into his young partner's use of deadly force, Perry testifies to a sympathetic commission: "At the end of the day, the bullets were in the bad guys, not us. He dropped a menace to society." Russell has thickened himself for this part, and he uses his new weight, his slit eyes, and his lopsided little smirk to suggest a man whose moral center—if it exists—is buried under layer upon layer of scuzz. Privately, Perry brags to his wife (Lolita Davidovich) that it was he, not his "goddamned coward" partner, who "split the guy's eyeballs" after "the Mandingo went track star." Perry can't even predict how repulsed his do-gooder wife will be—he's too infused with LAPD poison to see himself through her eyes.
Dark Blue isn't set in some generic urban jungle. The year is 1992, mere days before the verdict that will exonerate the four LAPD cops accused of using unnecessary force to subdue Rodney King; and Perry regards the men on trial as fine officers who did their duty after crossing paths with a dangerous crackhead. Perry suspects that if the verdict is "not guilty" the city will burn, but he's too settled in his ways—and too adroit in his work—to question his own philosophy. There's a glint in his eye when, to obtain a warrant, he blackmails an assistant district attorney with dirty pictures from her sorority days, and more than a hint of smugness when he brushes off her concern that no judge would sign a warrant so flimsy: This particular judge, over a two-olive martini, scrawls his name with hardly a murmur. Perry moves in a world in which there are virtually no checks on his power.
It's a testament to Russell's sharp but understated performance—and to the talent and conviction of director Ron Shelton and screenwriter David Ayer—that more than an hour goes by before the crude, ham-handed morality-play structure of Dark Blue becomes apparent. This is ultimately a conversion melodrama, and a clumsy one. But until it goes to hell, it's thrillingly good, a fervid answer to the spate of cop movies that glorify brutality and sanction ends over means. The first two-thirds of the film is fast, toughly acted, and compellingly convoluted—dense and twisty in ways that evoke the history and politics of the LAPD of the '80s and early '90s. Ayer scripted Training Day (2001), with its fascist-monster detective (Denzel Washington), and the story is credited to the novelist James Ellroy, who concocted the labyrinthine rot of L.A. Confidential. Their vision of the evil at the heart of the LAPD is mythic: It goes so deep that the riot in South Central is meant to be both horrifying and poetically just—a ghastly rite of cleansing.
It is—but it's also juxtaposed with the feeblest melodramatic machinations imaginable. The LAPD's satanic overlord is Jack Van Meter, played with piggy-eyed implacability by Brendan Gleeson. It isn't enough that Van Meter protects his men from charges of excessive force: He conjures up excessive force, like a black wizard. Make that a white-supremacist wizard. In the face of an investigation by his lone African-American counterpart, Deputy Chief Arthur Holland (Ving Rhames), Van Meter hisses the "n-word," then orders that pictures of Holland in a tryst with a comely underling (Michael Michele) be left for Holland's wife to find. Despite that one extramarital lapse, Holland is a dogged do-gooder who tells his packed church (and his suddenly shining-eyed wife) that he won't accept an offer to be chief of police in another city; he'll stay in Los Angeles and fight these racists. Holland's rise in stature is startlingly in synch with the dwindling of Rhames' charisma.
Dark Blue gets even more ham-handed. The film begins with a convenience-store robbery in which four bystanders are casually murdered, and it's a sickening scene—more upsetting for the camera's unflinching gaze. I assumed that the killings were meant as a necessary antithesis: to show that evil does exist on the streets of any major city rife with poverty and drug abuse, that sometimes you do need a strong police force to protect the average citizen. But in the movie's design—and this is a SPOILER, folks, but a just one—the murderers are working for the cop Van Meter, who hides his true involvement from Perry but commands him to pin the killings on someone else. Perry orders his young partner, Bobby (Scott Speedman), to execute some unfortunate scapegoat, and as he does it a little African-American girl watches from a nearby window. When Bobby pulls the trigger, she drops her sippy-cup. In slow motion. It smaaaaasshes on the paaaavemeeent, along with Bobby's iiiinnnnoceeence.
On its own terms, the South Central riot is one of the scariest spectacles of its kind ever shot: The African-Americans who smash and rob and pummel whites to death are terrifying without ever becoming demonic; the riot is like a living organism that develops its own furious momentum. But Shelton sandwiches his shaky, hand-held footage of the melee between scenes that would embarrass the creators of Matlock. Perry strides into a police ceremony attended by department bigwigs (including Van Meter) and members of the media—all of whom seem more interested in these interdepartmental promotions than the fact that the city is going up in smoke. Perry mounts the stage, takes the measure of the crowd, then launches into one of those Big Speeches that have sunk conversion melodramas since the days of Frank Capra. The old-style plotting isn't just flatfooted. It seems like a grotesque violation of the real-life carnage (which includes newsreel footage from the period) on the streets.
It's tempting to forgive Dark Blue its one-sided melodramatic clunkiness, though, because it isn't a run-of-the-mill fascist police drama. The people who cry that Hollywood is run by pansified liberals spreading the gospel of humanism conveniently forget that the most successful—and successfully exported—American genre is the vigilante movie, which clings to the Death Wish/Dirty Harry template. These scenarios are engineered to make the protagonist choose violence as the only sane means of dealing with his/her problem and to make the audience consent to that violence. Films about lethal police racism, its roots and its consequences, are usually left to the Spike Lees of the world, who are less ambivalent about violent uprising than liberals like Shelton. Dark Blue is a botch, but it's a bravely unfashionable botch. It's one of the few large-scale action movies that hasn't been made by nihilists.