Dark Blue, according to its credits, is based upon a story by Los Angeles-born author James Ellroy, who pens grisly and guilt-ridden pulp-noir haiku that spread across hundreds of pages. Its screenplay was penned by copper-caper fetishist David Ayer, a native Angeleno with an affinity for Hollywood-dark stories that unfold beneath the city’s hazy sunshine (the film’s director, Ron Shelton, insists he rewrote both men’s words with their approval). But you don’t need the credits to inform you of what’s clear to anyone who read Ellroy’s LA Confidential (or saw Curtis Hanson’s 1997 film version) or viewed Ayer’s Training Day, which garnered Denzel Washington an Oscar for playing an undercover brother who’d sooner take down his partner than a perp. Dark Blue, set during the hours before the Simi Valley jury turned in its verdict in the Rodney King beating trial in the spring of 1992, plays like a mishmash of its antecedents — a remix, with a city that’s being burned and looted providing the variant beat. If the film has a point, it’s a simple and obvious one: The more things change, the more they stay the goddamned same. No, really?
Shelton could be forgiven for his decision to revisit LA’s mean streets — or the mean corner of Florence and Normandie, where Reginald Denny was beaten by an angry mob, re-created here — had Dark Blue brought something new to its police ball. Shelton, maker of Bull Durham and White Men Can’t Jump, wants to make the setting mean something. He wants to make a statement about race and politics in a corrupt department protecting and serving a decaying city. (Everything here is viewed in black and white; the only thing gray is the concrete.) But in the end he uses the King riots as window dressing, not commentary or context: The city burns, but nothing’s been learned, nothing’s been gained, nothing’s been said that hasn’t been said a hundred times before.
Early on, the movie does suck you in and spit you out, but that has less to do with Shelton’s filmmaking than his use of the unforgettable and unforgiving footage of officers Timothy Wind, Theodore Briseno, Laurence Powell, and Sergeant Stacey Koon beating King in March 1991. From there, the director leaps forward a year later to scenes of disheveled Sergeant Eldon Perry Jr. (Kurt Russell), the swaggering head of LAPD’s Special Investigations Squad, swigging back Crown Royal in a seedy motel room while waiting for the jury’s verdict. We then jump back five days earlier: Two thugs, Orchard (rapper Kurupt) and Sidwell (Dash Mihok), sit in a car arguing over the verdict. They’re about to swipe an Asian grocer’s safe and gun down four innocents in the process — all in a day’s grisly work. Orchard bets Sidwell, his white partner, that the jury will let the cops walk. “Bet you some pussy,” he says, confident of the verdict.
It’s into this firecracker atmosphere — one small boom in the suburbs, and the whole city’s ready to go off — that Shelton begins recounting an achingly familiar tale. As it turns out, Perry is boozing it up in the motel room not because he’s concerned about the impending conflagration, but because he’s gotten himself into a real mess, the result of years of doing the dirty work of Jack Van Meter (Brendan Gleeson), a crooked chief who might as well be the grandson of LA Confidential‘s Dudley Smith. Perry, a loud and proud racist and homophobe, has been carrying Van Meter’s water for too long, and now he’s about to drown in it. He doesn’t own up to his wretched past — killing the wrong man, say, to clear up Orchard and Sidwell’s quadruple homicide at Van Meter’s behest — till it gets him into trouble. He has no conscience, just an ass to cover. Unlike LA Confidential‘s Jack Vincennes, Perry has no interest in trying to remember why he became a cop.
Perry, we’re told, is pretty much screwed from jump. Early in the film, he and his young partner Bobby Keough (Felicity‘s Scott Speedman, looking like a young Russell, before the rot has set in) sit before a shooting board. The chiefs are ready to clear Perry and Keough in the killing of a suspect, but the sole black officer on the board, Assistant Chief Holland (Ving Rhames), doesn’t buy their story. He’s ready to declare war on the pair, even if it means becoming an outcast in a racist department that would never stomach a black chief. If Speedman is the Ethan Hawke of this movie, the idealist whose partner destroys his romanticism about the nobility of police work, then Rhames is its Guy Pearce, the career officer who doesn’t mind pissing down the ladder on the climb up.
We have heard this song before — know it by heart, sadly, as film still can’t keep pace with real-life headlines about fake drug busts and a shady LAPD, and still filmmakers can’t resist its rhythms. And so Shelton’s movie degenerates into prolonged rooftop shootouts, a car chase through South Central, and the Big Speech where all that’s wrong is made right while the media’s cameras roll. All that’s missing is a voice-over announcing: “Tonight, on a very special episode of The Shield…”