Kurt Russell has always seemed to me like something of a self-parody. Maybe it’s his tanned-yet-cartoonish good looks. Or maybe that I’m content to remember him for his excellent work opposite an unruly chimp in The Barefoot Executive and as the ridiculous title character in Captain Ron, rather than in such masterpieces as Tombstone and Backdraft. Whatever the reason, Russell gives a great performance in Dark Blue, a cop redemption story whose script is so by-the-numbers that it sinks into its own mode of self-parody, rendering Russell’s effort nearly pointless.
Dark Blue spins out an L.A. Confidential-style tale of corruption in the LAPD (no surprise here, the story was written by Confidential author James Ellroy), as matters for buckaroo cop Eldon Perry (Russell) come to a head while he breaks in a new partner, Bobby Keough (Scott Speedman). The movie is set in 1992 during the final days of jury deliberation in the Rodney King case, a time when hardheaded cops like Perry rooted for the exoneration of colleagues already convicted by videotape. Its climax comes as South Central begins to burn, a crucial coincidental element of the plot that works against all odds.
Keough is a tentative rookie detective who defers to Perry’s every instruction, whether he feels it’s right or wrong. The two are assigned by Keough’s uncle, Jack Van Meter (Brendan Gleeson), to investigate a quadruple homicide at a liquor store that Van Meter himself organized, unbeknownst to them. Concurrently, Assistant Chief Holland (Ving Rhames, wasted in a nothing role) is gathering strength in his fight to bring down Van Meter, Perry and their cronies after years of suffering at their bigoted hands.
Russell is good, better than the script he’s given and better than our expectations of him, walking around like an alpha-male cowboy whose sense of self-worth comes from how often he twirls his six-guns. Russell would be oozing chauvinism and racism if Perry were the sort of man who let emotion seep out of him and build to a roaring crescendo. But Perry is a whirring Tazmanian devil of hate, operating at full throttle at all times. He spits and rants and lashes, dispensing self-righteous and alcohol-fueled rage in the direction of blacks, Koreans and anybody else who looks different or thinks differently from him. He’s never still long enough to do anything so time-consuming as actual oozing.
Based on Ellroy’s story, Dark Blue was written by Training Day scripter David Ayer. Ayer lets Russell have a better shot at redemption than he allowed Denzel Washington in Training Day, but gives Speedman much less to work with than he did Ethan Hawke. Although it’s possible that Speedman sinks himself: He gives the same whispery, wishy-washy performance he perfected in four years on “Felicity.” He’s cute, but the do-gooder rube act wears thin.
Then again, Ayers gives his characters excruciating thinking-aloud lines like “And you wonder why I’m an alcoholic” — making Dark Blue feel like a cheesy late-’80s thriller. Worse, the film deals with so many plot threads that often developments and resolutions feel overly brief, and as a result of trickle-down story economics also seem extremely obvious and dumb (of course Van Meter is corrupt, of course Keough pays the price). Maybe Speedman the actor is actually as innocent of wrongdoing here as his character.
Ron Shelton is something of a popcorn sports-movie auteur, having written and directed the likes of Bull Durham, White Men Can’t Jump and Tin Cup. Dark Blue is his first effort at directing a movie that he didn’t write himself, as well as the first time in more than a decade that he’s worked with material not grounded in the simple camaraderie and universal emotions of athletics. It’s a leap for him, although maybe not quite as much as it appears on the surface. After all, what’s a police force if not a uniformed team focused on beating wicked opponents, maintaining their own good name and taking care of their own at all costs?
Sports is its own microcosm of politics and intrigue. Allegorically speaking, cops are just another group of athletes, some cerebral in carrying out their duties, others content to power through the job with muscles and intimidation. As manager of this ball club, Shelton averages out the two extremes into a movie that wants to be better and almost was.
Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].