by Del Harvey
Ron Shelton brings writer James Ellroy’s dark vision of Los Angeles at its lowest hour into sharp focus.
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In 1991 what should have been a routine pursuit and arrest became a racial divide, pitting the citizens of metropolitan Los Angeles against friend and neighbor, and placing the reflection of their own dark selves right out in the open for all to see. This was the Rodney King incident, which led to the Los Angeles riots. It is against this singed, threadbare canvas that director Ron Shelton (Bull Durham, Cobb) projects the story of veteran police detective Eldon Perry (Kurt Russell—Soldier, Tombstone, Silkwood) and his newly shielded partner Bobby Kehough (Scott Speedman—TV’s Felicity). Perry has seen it all and done nearly everything asked of him. He laughs off the wounds of each treachery performed in the name of duty, hiding his heart and soul deeper within himself for every favor or task performed, no matter how dirty.
Keough questions these choices when he is told to kill a perp and pin another crime on the man. As if that weren’t enough for the young cop, his emotions are wrapped around an attractive young black woman, Sgt. Beth Williamson (Michael Michele—TV’s ER, Ali), with whom he’s having a spicy sex fling; they don’t know anything about each other except for their first names. But he’s falling for her, and he thinks she feels the same way.
In the good ol’ boy environment that is the L.A.P.D., the special investigative squad (S.I.S.) of detectives is run by a well-connected, string-pulling leader of the old school, Jack Van Meter (Brendan Gleeson—Gangs of New York, Lake Placid). When Van Meter tells Perry to jump, Perry swallows his pride and does just what he’s asked, even though it is obvious how much it kills him. Opposing Van Meter and all that he stands for is Deputy Chief Arthur Holland (Ving Rhames—Undisputed, Pulp Fiction), a black cop rising through the ranks with an eye on being Chief of Police very soon. He despises the Van Meters and their racist ways of operating.
David Ayer’s script for Dark Blue is full of author James Ellroy’s sinister vision of Los Angeles, which is consistent through all of his novels (L.A. Confidential, The Big Nowhere, Black Dahlia, Blood on the Moon). It is a fair representation of the de-evolution of Chandler’s mean streets into the rancid brutality that is the City of Angels, a species of bird seemingly on permanent vacation from this West Coast city. Ayers wrote the script from a story by Ellroy. In bringing Dark Blue to vivid life, Ayer’s and Shelton’s transformation maintains the writer’s sense of despair while infusing the characters with the promise of hope in spite of their stark realization of the consequences of their actions. Power is the currency of Los Angeles, and corruption the status quo. But even Van Meter’s best lackey questions his misus of authority, eventually.
Kurt Russell gives perhaps the best performance of his career as Eldon Perry. The detective who’s success depends upon his ability to kill without remorse pays a high price in the loss of his spirit. And by film’s end he has paid much more than that. Russell struggles to overcome many internal and external demons in this role, and watching his dilemma and rooting for Perry to make the right choice was riveting.
The ads for Dark Blue tout the film as a cross between L.A. Confidential and Training Day. To those comparisons I would add 25th Hour and Gangs of New York. There are scenes in Dark Blue that made me instantly think of all those other movies, but without a sense that anything had been imitated. Rather, it left me wondering if this film might have fared better if released at the same time those were.
But, whatever the case may be, Dark Blue is an engaging, exciting story that is so much more than another cop drama. It is an mesmerizing expression of what is so wrong in our society, and the price paid when we try to rectify those life altering errors.
Del Harvey is a writer and the founder of Film Monthly. He is a devout Chicago Bears fan, loves Grant Park in any season, and recently taught screenwriting at Columbia College Chicago.
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