The struggle between good and evil, interracial conflict, father-and-son relationships; these are all standard fare for American cop films, and frankly, Dark Blue (2003) never ventures too far out of the ordinary. Which is not to say that it is a film without a heart, or that the acting is bad, or that the issues are not pertinent – but these are issues covered in an infinitely more sophisticated and contemporary way in the latest American TV cop serials, such as The Shield on Channel 5. Dark Blue is a film that I wouldn’t mind sitting through at home on a cold evening, slice of pizza in hand. But as a night out at the cinema, it’s a bit too formulaic for its own good.
The film is set in Los Angeles, at the time when America was waiting for the verdict from the trial of the police officers charged with the brutal beating of Rodney King. In case we can’t remember what happened, director Ron Shelton (White Men Can’t Jump, Bull Durham) cuts in a slice of the video footage of the incident. The use of such disturbing pictures seems almost pornographic. Although the opening sequence of the film is about as unoriginal as you can imagine, Shelton ably establishes the sense of tension in the city in subsequent sequences, so to use the Rodney King footage as well seems unnecessary. Perhaps a younger audience needed to be reminded.
What follows is the induction of rookie Bobby Keough (Scott Speedman) into LAPD Special Investigations Squad’s (SIS) style of policing at the hands of maverick cop Eldon Perry (Kurt Russell). Speedman looks suspiciously like a younger version of Russell, even down to the trademark long wavy blond hair, so I can only conclude that Shelton deliberately wanted us to see it as some kind of father-son / big brother–little brother relationship. Needless to say, Keough is led astray by the super-tough Russell, who in turn has been led astray by the corrupt police chief, Jack van Meter (Brendan Gleeson).
Throw in a little racial rivalry, minor marital infidelity, total marriage breakdown, urban rioting and a few untimely deaths and you’re left with an off-the-shelf exploration of the complexities of human nature. We may start off innocent, but there are legions of wicked people waiting to corrupt us, whilst other wiser, better (though not entirely unblemished) people battle for our souls.
Sadly this all makes for a deeply unmemorable movie. Shelton handles the action scenes adeptly, but the more intimate sections are very dull. David Ayer’s script (adapted from a James Ellroy story) occasionally catches fire but covers little new ground. As for the acting, well, it’s all perfectly adequate. Speedman is suitably pretty. Love interest Michael Michele is appropriately sexy but looks ill at ease handling a gun as policewoman Beth. Ving Rhames is seriously dull as good cop / not quite so good husband Holland, and Gleeson enjoys himself as much as he can in a fairly two-dimensional villain role.
But ultimately this is Russell’s film and, much to my surprise, he is by far the best thing in it. Whether chomping on a cigar or generally chewing the scenery, shooting either his mouth or his gun off, he is totally engaging and plays this part of a fundamentally fair-minded man who has lost his soul to the absolute limit. He’s given some ostentatiously show-stopping speeches to do, but handles them admirably. He even convinces in the marriage breakdown scenes with his disillusioned wife (Lolita Davidovich). It’s a highly enjoyable performance, and the only thing which manages to lift this film out of the purely humdrum – but it’s not enough on its own, and really there’s no need to see this film before it hits the small screen.