review by Cynthia
Fuchs, 21 February 2003
cowardly and unlawful beating of Rodney King was not an aberration
but follows a trend stemming from the Civil War.
-- Haki R. Madhubuti, "Introduction, Why L.A. Happened
begins with a familiar bit of videotape: Rodney King's beating by
L.A. police officers. Twelve years later, and as many times as
you've seen George Holliday's tape, it still horrifies. Worse,
following the Simi Valley verdicts and the L.A. uprising, it has
become an emblem of U.S. racism and injustice. It is, perhaps, in
this sense that the image continues to resonate most deeply.
all this in mind, the decision to start with Holliday's footage
seems nervy. You wouldn't call up the memory or the legacy without
something serious or at least thoughtful, to say about it.
Unfortunately, Dark Blue, set in 1992, doesn't get much
beyond using the trial of the four officers as ominous backdrop for
its focus -- a team of corrupt, self-righteous cops. The trial pops
up on TV screens and in conversation, as detectives worry that the
city will "explode" if the verdict is not guilty.
know they're right about this, and so, you wait for the inevitable.
Most annoyingly, by the time the inevitable comes to pass, the rest
of the movie has devolved into conventional action-melodrama,
complete with bad white cops' sacrifice, redemption, and just
punishment. Its troubling race politics may not be quite so
egregious as Mississippi Burning (or, for that matter, Alan
Parker's new movie, The Life of David Gale, opening the same
day as Dark Blue), but it's in the ballpark.
not to say the film doesn't feature black characters with speaking
parts, or even that these characters aren't formidable in their own
right. You have your two black cops -- noble deputy chief Arthur
Holland (Ving Rhames) and his efficient assistant, Sergeant Beth
Williamson (Michael Michele) -- as well as a couple of predictably
excessive black thugs (both well played by Kurupt and Master P; Kurt
Russell observes that "Rappers in general are really good with
words -- they're really good with lines," but seriously, these
cats can act).
the trial going on, Holland, for one, has his hands full: his
diverse community, not to mention his officers, are increasingly on
edge, and his career (he wants to be Los Angeles' first black police
chief) is increasingly uncertain. Still, Holland, Beth, and the
designated criminals are plainly in place to serve the larger story
of white detectives, presuming privilege and suffering guilt. And
this means that the issues surrounding "Rodney King" (the
events and media coverage more than the man, who appears only as the
crumpled form beneath blurred police batons). These issues --
poverty, abuse, institutional racism -- are reduced to background,
overcooked and accompanied by Terence Blanchard's jazz-bluesy score.
This is a scary city, where scary figures hang out on scary corners
and slouch with scary insouciance. No wonder the cops are tense.
the primary tension emerges in the Special Investigations Squad.
Much like Rampart's infamously shady anti-gang unit (CRASH), SIS
regularly plants evidence, threatens informants, executes suspects,
and steals from local businesses, justifying its "work" as
ridding the city of drug-dealing, violent scum (this rationale will
also be familiar to viewers of FX's The Shield). Adapted by
David Ayer (Training Day) from a story by James Ellroy (L.A.
Confidential), and directed by Ron Shelton (Play It To the
Bone), Dark Blue comes with the usual "somber"
buddy movie concerns -- overweening machismo, loyalty, racism, and
the loss of a good woman.
SIS detective Eldon Perry, Jr. (Kurt Russell), has bits of Russell
Crowe's Bud White and Guy Pearce's Exley in him. For the first, he's
the Squad's muscle, dispatched by boss Jack Van Meter (Brendan
Gleeson) to clean up messes, with whatever force seems necessary:
"Just go do what you do," snarls Van Meter. And for the
second, Eldon comes from a long line of cowboy-cops, and feels
pressed to live up their examples. In fact, he goes so far as to
cite his actual-cowboy grandfather's enviable ability to go round up
a cattle thief and hang him without any such thing as due process.
By this point, late in the film, he's under considerable duress, and
it could be that he's using these good old days ironically, to
exemplify the dire corruptions of the current system.
again, maybe he wishes the good old hang 'em high days were back in
effect. As he embodies this current system, Eldon carries a
particular burden. He sees himself as the defender of the law,
believing that he must work outside the law to do so. He blames his
own extreme behavior on the fact that all the criminals are more
extreme, exemplifying the argument made by the police officers on
trial: Rodney King, as the defense infamously had it,
"controlled and directed" the encounter, and so required
sustained brutal force to be subdued.
that such force is necessary, Eldon's investment in his identity as
a cop has taken its toll. He's descended into alcoholism and, as one
deft scene in particular suggests, feels painfully distanced from
his corrections-officer wife Sally (Lolita Davidovich) and
adolescent son. To illustrate, he comes home from a hard day at the
review board, whereupon he recounts for wifey how he lied.
Specifically, he covered up the fact that he shot a suspect because
his wussy-newbie partner, Bobby (Scott Speedman), was supposed to be
getting his "first shoot" credit.
tangle of deceits and masculine measures is only the tip of the SIS
iceberg. Partly depressed by the partner's lack of machismo and
partly worn down by his own excess of it, Eldon sits on the sofa
with Sally, unable to find a way to talk to her except in bang-bang
cop stories. She's tired of it.
surprise: Eldon misses that cue. Instead, he drinks that night, and
next day, redevotes himself to being the perfect "team
player," in order to make order of his mounting chaos. His
mentoring of Bobby is complicated by the fact that the kid is also
Van Meter's nephew. Worse, said kid is increasingly queasy about the
job's requisite immoral and illegal activities (this angle recalls
the generational and ethical dynamics of Training Day).
Still, simultaneously impressed and intimidated by Eldon, Bobby
works hard to win approval: when he devises an adept reading of a
crime scene, Eldon almost smiles.
an added complication, Bobby is also having girl issues,
specifically, an affair with Beth, which he is careful not to
mention for fear of his overtly racist partner's likely reaction.
Though Bobby and Beth agree upfront that they don't even want to
know each other's last names, well, things change, and he starts to
really like this girl. Wouldn't you know, he grows a conscience
large enough to disrupt his initiation into the SIS.
the while, subplots pile up like dead bodies. Holland is suspicious
of the film's initial (offscreen) shooting, the one approved by the
review board; he initiates an investigation, which in turn invites
payback: Van Meter has incriminating pictures of him and a woman who
is not his wife (Khandi Alexander, memorable in what might best be
termed a "thankless role").
plays dirty. Van Meter assigns Bobby and Eldon to a multiple
homicide at a Korean-owned convenience store (more shades of L.A.
Confidential). The primary suspects are a conveniently
interracial team (Dash Minok and Kurupt) who happen to be working
under Van Meter's auspices. Boss man instructs Eldon to pin the
murders on two locals with records and Bobby grows even queasier --
as the trial winds to its verdict and the city's minority
communities are roiling, the film narrows its focus to the white
guys' blooming angsts.
this point, Eldon would embody the imploding city if he had a clue
what was wrong. Or rather, his drive toward self-awareness is made
visual as he careens through the streets en route to the showdown;
he's still hunting his prey, even though (or because) he knows the
worst injury has already been inflicted and that he's largely partly
responsible. As Eldon's life and self-image collapse, the city
burns. And Barry Peterson's cinematography turns alternately poetic
and devastating: looters, assailants, and frightened locals rush
past Eldon's car: he's fierce and irrational, they're menacing,
confused, feeling suddenly entitled in ways they'd never imagined
possible. It's a stunning sequence, but it only reveals Dark Blue's
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult