Dark Blue



USA 2002 (released 2003) : Ron SHELTON : 118 mins

“From the writers of Training Day and LA Confidential” proclaim the posters for this tough, intelligent cop-thriller in a way, it’s a misleading description. Because while David Ayer wrote the screenplays of both Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day and Dark Blue, his collaborator here is neither Brian Helgeland nor Curtis Hanson, who adapted several James Ellroy novels into the Hanson-directed LA Confidential, but Ellroy himself. Ellroy is credited only with Dark Blue‘s story, but his distinctive ‘dabs’ are all over many aspects of Ayer’s script, from unsentimental characterisation to hard-bitten dialogue: Ellroy’s world is one where cops “in the business of ‘gettin-shit-done’ ” interact with ‘perps’, ‘vics’ and ‘wits’: the perpetrators of, victims of, and witnesses to crime.

So that promo tagline is, in another way, entirely accurate: Dark Blue is a fairly straight cross between LA Confidential and Training Day – not so good as the epic, wide-canvas former but a cut above the latter, which spiralled off disappointingly into an increasingly ludicrous final act. Kurt Russell takes the “Denzel Washington” role as Eldon Perry, a veteran cop whose rule-bending methods appal his youthful protg – Scott Speedman (a long-haired Edward Norton) steps into Ethan Hawke’s shoes as Bobby Keough, nephew of ruthlessly corrupt police bigwig Jack Van Meter (Brendan Gleeson).

Good-young-cop/bad-old-cop is so familiar as to constitute a separate mini-genre, including Q & A (1990 – Timothy Hutton/Nick Nolte) and most recently Narc (2002 – Ray Liotta/Jason Patric). But there are several aspects of Dark Blue which give the film enough freshness and character to stand on its own. There’s the Ellroy factor – as in the writer’s best books, we’re given convincing, often shocking glimpses into the less attractive side of LA law-enforcement, paying particular attention to the complex and intergenerational (male) relationships that underpin it and link the present with the (no less morally dubious) past.

Adding extra historical resonance is Dark Blue‘s timeframe: the five days in 1991 before the jury returned its verdict on the LAPD officers accused of beating Rodney King – the acquittal sparked off California’s worst riots for decades. The film begins with the actual video-footage of the King incident, images whose implications hang heavy over all that follows.

Finally, although this is a well-cast film with uniformly solid performances – including Ving Rhames as Holland, a swaggering ‘good-apple’, moral-crusader cop – Dark Blue is dominated by a career-crowning turn from Russell. His work more than matches Washington’s Oscar-winning efforts – but, depressingly, has no chance of being recognised as such thanks to this film’s limp performance at the US box office. The aggressively bigoted, self-righteous Perry – his pretty-boy looks turned overfed and piggy-eyed after years of moral turpitude – must be the most unsympathetic character the actor has ever played in his long career, and he delivers a full-blooded portrait of a bad man seizing his last chance of redemption.

Because Dark Blue does, ultimately, avoid a cynicism, instead opting for a positive stance towards Perry and the LAPD. This is, of course, pure wish fulfilment on the part of Ayer and Ellroy: they’re spinning a fictional story around real events and institutions, and it’s one with a relatively ‘happy’ ending, despite Shelton’s apocalyptic presentation of the LA riots during the climax. Though experts on the post-riots LAPD may reject the finale as rose-tinted fantasy, it’s justifiable in terms of Dark Blue being an accessible, satisfying entertainment.

Less easy to forgive, however, are the clunky coincidences upon which the screenplay creakingly pivots: the fact that Keogh’s girlfriend Beth Williamson (Michael Michele) just so happens to be Holland’s assistant (and ex-lover), plus the contrived means by which both Keough & Williamson and Perry are simultaneously sent to the house where Van Meter’s goons lie in ambush for the older cop. These flaws aren’t Shelton’s fault, of course, and the director does a typically professional job on what looks (and occasionally sounds) like a restrictively low budget. This is a solid, serious, engrossing film proving, once again, that disastrous US box office figures are no guarantee of mediocrity: all too often, in fact, they’re the exact opposite.

20th June, 2003
(seen 19th June: Odeon Gate, Newcastle-upon-Tyne)

by Neil Young