On April 29, 1992, three members of the Los Angeles police force were acquitted for their involvement in the Rodney King case, setting off six-days of rioting across the city that accounted for 53 deaths, thousands of injuries and over a billion dollars in damages. Using the week leading up to that acquittal as the setting for his script, James Ellroy -- who also wrote L.A. Confidential -- turns in another winner with 2001's Dark Blue, a story that deals with all the corruption and wrongdoings going on in the LAPD.
Working off Ellroy's novel for 'Confidential,' that 1997 movie earned a nomination for writing so Ellroy goes back to the well for Dark Blue, which explores some of the same topics. But setting the story around the Rodney King trial gives the movie an extremely tense feeling because as a viewer we know what's coming when the jury finally makes their decision. And with Chinatown (1930s), Confidential (1950s), and here with Dark Blue (1990s), it's like a timeline of corruption for Los Angeles.
Assigned a case usually given to homicide, detectives Eldon Perry (Kurt Russell), a veteran officer and a 3rd-generation cop, and Bobby Keogh (Scott Speedman), a new officer on the force, are investigating four murders at a Korean grocery market. But as they look into the brutal killings, the evidence doesn't add up, and they find out some of their superiors may have been involved with the case. As Perry and Keogh investigate, another higher-up officer, Arthur Holland (Ving Rhames), is trying to take the detective duo down because of what he believes is years of corruption, fabricating evidence and arresting people just to shut down cases, guilty or not. Perry's SIS supervisor, Jack Van Meter (Brendan Gleeson), is doing his best to keep his detectives out in the field. With the jury decision looming, Perry and Keogh do whatever they can to close their own case.
Procedural cop stories are a dime a dozen in both movies and TV and because they're so popular there is probably no end in sight. The better ones tend to dig into the real nitty-gritty day to day lives of the officers and beat cops on the streets. Russell's Perry grew up wanting to be a cop and isn't above bribing, blackmailing or fabricating evidence to get a warrant. He's as politically incorrect as possible, but did he become this way because of what he sees doing his job or because that's how he always was? These questions bounced around in my head a lot while watching, mostly because Russell is such a likable character that he makes Perry sympathetic at times and easily hatable in others.
Playing a darker character than he typically plays, Russell carries the movie with his performance. He's racist, alcoholic, sometimes trigger-happy and will close his cases and catch the bad guy rules/morals/policies be damned. All of this comes to a head as the race riots start in L.A. in an ending that could have been overly theatrical but ends up working because it shows a man that's been pushed too far. As his friend and boss, Gleeson steals just about every scene he's in as Van Meter, the incredibly corrupt long-time officer who lets other do his busy work for him while he reaps the benefits. Speedman is a bit of a weak link in the story mostly because he's not up to his co-stars in ability. Rhames has a small but integral part and handles it well, but don't expect two hours of Russell and Rhames going toe to toe.
Director Ron Shelton chose to film the movie in Los Angeles, often going into the roughest neighborhoods in the cities to get shots he needed. The decision pays off, giving the story that gritty, realistic feel it needed to be successful. The riot scenes especially stand out as Perry tries to drive through the mayhem tearing the city apart, all the while trying to catch two suspects looking to make a quick getaway. Not having been old enough to realize what was going on in 1992, seeing Shelton's depiction is downright frightening with the final shot an especially haunting one as L.A. burns.
Nothing too original here, nothing you won't have seen before if you're a fan of procedural police movies, but that doesn't mean it's not worth seeing. Formulaic doesn't mean bad in my book. Kurt Russell in the lead gives a fine performance and Brendan Gleeson matches him in every scene. It's not flashy in its execution, but Shelton's movie is always solid and worth a rent.
Dark Blue <---trailer (2002): ***/****