December 16, 2013

Dark Blue (2002)

Dark Blue is the type of film that wants to fool you. The synopsis on the back of the DVD or the opening expository scenes do nothing to help you think that what you are about to see is nothing but a by-the-numbers 'black vs. white' racism allegory. But by setting up this expectation, director Ron Shelton and writer David Ayer pull the rug out from under you and offer a surprisingly detailed, and far from ordinary, look inside the racial politics of the LAPD and the city of Los Angeles.

Instead of making the story about the noble, black assistant chief vs. the corrupt, white detective, as the opening scenes would lead you to believe, Ayer's screenplay allows no side to be picked as the story turns from setting up the 'adversaries' and instead looks at how society shapes the men and women of any color and how one choice ... only one choice ... can forge your path.

In the end, Kurt Russell's aggressive and nearly sociopathic detective Eldon Perry is less 'guilty' and more a product of his time that deserves sympathy. And when you can reach that level after seeing the depths Perry goes to throughout the film to make him unbearable to the audience, you are witnessing a fine screenplay, a brilliant acting performance and crisp direction at work.

Dark Blue is framed by five days. During the opening scene we see Perry nervously pacing around a hotel room; shotguns and pistols lay on the bed, ready for use. On the TV is the soon-to-be released Rodney King verdict. We then cut to five days earlier: Perry is sleepwalking his way through his partner Bobby's (Scott Speedman) shooting board ... his first ... and not thinking too much of it. In his mind, scum was destroyed.

Everyone on the shooting panel would agree, except Assistant Chief Holland (Ving Rhames) who knows Perry is dirty but just can't prove it. We slowly learn that the shooting panel is, for the most part, chums with Perry and his boss Jack Van Meter (Brendan Gleeson) and that Van Meter gets his way in all things. Holland is a minority in every sense of the word: little power and surrounded by racists who can boss him around.

Bobby, Perry's partner, gets off at the shooting board but we slowly discover he never should have been there in the first place. Fumbling his gun during the incident, Perry picked up the gun and shot the criminal himself, saying Bobby did it to "save" his reputation. Bobby is shaken that he nearly killed someone. Perry is only embarrassed he had to do it this time.

Bobby is, ironically, sleeping around with Holland's chief aid, Sgt. Williamson (Michael Michele) and those two, under the shadows of their more domineering bosses, end up becoming reluctant partners who try to breakdown the corrupt kingdom that Van Meter runs. The first that has to fall is, naturally, Perry ... Van Meter's golden boy but, also, Bobby's biggest ally.

All of this, taking place in five days, leads up to the Rodney King verdicts ... verdicts that will make black vs. white more than a moral issue, but an actual literal one. And while Bobby and Williamson try their best to revolutionize a stuck-in-their-ways police department, both Perry and Holland have to come to some harsh realizations about their motivations, their goals and what their lives mean.

Originally given a screenplay treatment by James Ellroy, who is given story credit, Dark Blue also betrays it's misleading 'by the numbers' set up by pulling absolutely NO punches. When Van Meter and Perry speak, black men are shines and niggers while the Chinese are chinks and slants. When dealing with feelings, men are pussies. Ellroy and Ayer make it quite clear that the department is so corrupt that Van Meter can call his assistant chief Holland a 'nigger' openly and nothing will be done about it.

But the screenplay uses these harsh realities to cement the world we are seeing. Without any pulled punches in the offensive department, we know we'll get honesty on all sides. Kurt Russell, who plays Perry, is given the utterly thankless job of being completely despicable yet entirely human and understandable.

His estranged wife, who literally drinks herself to sleep to avoid dealing with Perry, tells him, at one point in their degraded relationship, that he was a man who sunk into hell and can't get out. And while we can see this in some ways with Perry's actions, the existence of Speedman's Bobby is the essential piece in showing you how far, indeed, Perry has fallen into said hell.

Speedman easily looks like Russell's younger self ... a younger clone, if you will ... and this is done for both literal and figurative reasons. Russell represents what breeding and expectation made of Perry. Simply following in his father's brutal footsteps and living up to the ideals of Van Meter has made Perry the monster he is. Bobby is a blood relative of Van Meter, but one gets the impression he was raised away from Van Meter's presence. He's young, innocent, naive ... and scared to death.

During one monumental event in the film, Van Meter has Perry and Bobby pin a murder wrap on two innocents (ex-cons who served their time and had nothing to do with the murder). Perry knows the two have to be killed so as not to bring up questions: kill them and the murder is 'solved' and they can move on to the next issue (key plot point: the real murderers are Van Meter's informants and a source for robbery money ... he, naturally, does not want them nabbed).

When one of the ex-cons is successfully escaping, Perry makes Bobby shoot him to earn his stripes and make up for his prior mistakes. Bobby reluctantly murders the man and descends into his own personal hell. Using the help of Williamson, though, he decides to turn himself in ... after arresting Perry.

The conclusion of the film is simply breathtaking. We eventually catch up to the opening scene of the film and we find out Perry isn't stressing about the Rodney King verdict ... he's stressing because Van Meter, sensing Perry is losing his edge, has sent Perry to his death; to arrest his two informants who will be waiting for him, with notice from Van Meter, with guns loaded.

Without blowing anymore of this for anyone who hasn't seen it, you know what happened with Rodney King. And while Perry, Bobby and Williamson hurry to a violent, bloody conclusion, the city of LA is up in smoke as the riots begin. Shelton brings that to life, throwing us in the middle of it all.

Director Shelton, I believe, never gets a lot of credit for how immersive his films are physically. Part of what made Bull Durham work was how immersed the audience was in rural America. The urban decay of White Man Can't Jump is due to Shelton refusing to shoot anywhere but the authentic areas in which the story takes place. He does the same in Dark Blue, shooting the film in the most dangerous and run down areas of Los Angeles. This attention to detail gives the figurative descent into hell a physical and literal playground.

David Ayer, who specializes in the urban crime thriller, was following up with the very popular Training Day. The real problem with Training Day was that the final 10 minutes was so immensely stupid that it nearly drowned all that came before it, which was brilliant and well written/executed. Ayer avoids this in Dark Blue though our anti-hero does come to a revelation of how evil he is and changes his ways.

My one gripe with this ending is one of Perry's last lines. After delivering a whirlwind speech about his corruption to a shocked audience at his own promotion ceremony, Perry, now under arrest, asks Holland how ugly his life is going to get. Holland simply replies 'ugly' in that trademark Ving Rhames deadpan. Then Perry asks to be sent to the safest prison. And then we never hear him speak again.

It's kind of like watching a despicable person rise from the pits he came from, redeem himself with sacrifice and grace and then kind of wuss out at the last second. I'm not saying I want Perry to die brutally in prison ... but it seems Perry's vindication is deflated by asking for a favor. Some crisper editing would have been appreciated.

Thematically, Dark Blue defies all expectations though critics seem to disagree with me. This film did not do well critically or commercially and is kind of forgotten. And that really is a shame because not only does the film have something meaningful to say and does it without cliche, but Kurt Russell is, as my friend Robert says, "sterling".

It seems, just like Dark Blue, that people have forgotten Kurt Russell a bit. And that is a shame because he commands Dark Blue from beginning to end, much like Denzel Washington commanded Training Day, and it is truly a spectacle to behold. If anything, watch this for Russell.

Maybe it was the seemingly cliche approach the film took in advertising that made this film a mediocre box office contender ... maybe it was the atrocious score (yikes, it was bad) ... maybe it was the fact that 2002 was a film environment where acting stars were on the way out while more manufactured celebrities were taking their place ... we'll never know. Sometimes something doesn't catch on. But that is the beauty of DVD. Go watch this and revel in a hidden masterpiece.

1 comment:

  1. Good comparison with 'Training Day', Will. A charismatic, sympathetic bad guy -- though more of the henchman than the villain. Kurt did indeed command the film with his stellar performance. As someone who was there during the '92 riots (living a few miles from the intersection of Florence and Normandie flashpoint), Ron Shelton and David Ayer did capture the city and its troubles fairly well. Like Russell's performance, this is a thoroughly underrated crime thriller. Fine review, Will.


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