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Nik Huggins

Published July 1st, 2003 | by Nik Huggins

Dark Blue Review

The crime thriller, like the western, is an American genre Par Excellence. Films centred on the cat and mouse tension between cops and perpetrators have existed as long as the American movie industry itself. Mirroring changing social concerns, the crime thriller has fed upon the paranoia of war (film noir in the 40’s) the liberation of outmoded values (60s and 70s crime thrillers which saw a greater psychological emphasis put into action) and newly encroaching conservatism in later years with films such as the Dirty Harry saga.

Dark Blue definitely belongs in the final category. Despite its revisionist delusions (and a story by James Ellroy) it offers very little that’s new to the genre as a whole. Masquerading as a charged grapple with the racial conflicts that precipitated the severe rioting in early nineties Los Angeles, Dark Blue squanders the advantage of hindsight. The retrospective distance a decade affords this movie is wholly absent, and Dark Blue enforces such rigorous and narrow stereotypes that it begs the question has Hollywood cinema really progressed since 1991 in its cut and dried depiction of the race/police dichotomy. Perhaps it has regressed?

It is days before the eventual acquittal of four white police officers for the Rodney King beatings and Officer Eldon Perry (Kurt Russell) is thrown into the thick of events. Dodging corruption accusations for his uniquely brutal street style (specific to him, yet tried and tested by a wealth of maverick on-screen policemen) and entrusted with breaking in a snot-nosed rookie partner, Perry’s status as a man of action who gets the dirty work done quickly and with the minimum of fuss is called into question in the process of investigating a messy shootout in a convenience store, which left four innocent people dead. Perry’s dubious moral approach to the law is crudely tethered to his new partners’ fresh-faced idealism. Bobby Keogh (Scott Speedman) quickly finds out that being sandwiched between Perry and his own uncle Jack Van Meter (Brendan Gleeson), head of the disreputable SIS unit, soon draws him into the underhand world of criminal investigation.

Perry immediately sets to work, pounding the beat and a few potential suspects, hot on the trail of the killers, acutely aware that the city is on the verge of catastrophic fallout. Dark Blue sets up Perry’s fictionalised story to run concurrently with the real-life Rodney King coverage that is the pre-eminent talking point for the city’s media. The opening sequence of the film utilises the real documentary footage of the Rodney King beating, and juxtaposes it with a twitchy Russell in a flash-forward, as he prepares himself to confront the suspects whilst watching the trial unfold on TV.

If the biggest offence Dark Blue committed against the crime thriller were merely to reload the traditional elements of the genre then it wouldn’t be going to the cinematic Jail House alone. The fact that Dark Blue wallows in a number of tired and outmoded conventions with a misplaced aura of self-importance means that it should be singled out for specific criticism. The classic “new partner” routine juxtaposing the burned out mentor with the optimistic apprentice, the clumsy construction of racial stereotypes operating on both sides of the system and the general background of institutionalised corruption going all the way to the top: Each make a unwelcome return, but without any semblance of new complexity or reinterpretation. Instead done-to-death plot points, weak archetypes and worn out tensions within the piece are played through over the potential backdrop of a quality thriller, which had the opportunity to resonate with historical meaning.

Kurt Russell’s Eldon Perry; bad cop with a wavering moral compass (oh, it is there, honest!?) is contrasted with Ving Rhames’ Arthur Holland; the black police officer trying to end corruption within the force amidst the tide of racial opposition that is holding him back. This fair-handed conflict is counter-pointed with Perry’s brutal harassment of a group of black youths he drives past in the street. His actions are unprovoked and illegitimate, attempting to coerce information from seemingly arbitrary individuals, but not condemned. The youths are merely fodder for the playing out of a scene where the protagonist reiterates his violent control over the narrative. The scene would be more disturbing if David (Training Day) Ayers’ script didn’t lapse so readily into unintentional self-parody. The unsettling dichotomy between pay-off and perception is fully evident throughout Dark Blue, and the redemption of Russells’ character in the closing scene, further complicates matters. Dark Blue employs a superficially ambivalent attitude towards race-relations, without any analytical insight.

Instead of dealing accurately and objectively with the racial undertones of the period, Dark Blue is too preoccupied with glamorising moments of violent conflict between a flawed but charismatic central character and the faceless opponents he confronts and defeats. Over-the-top, and painfully anachronistic, Dark Blue possesses a straight-to-video embellishment of its central themes in the pursuit of mindless entertainment, rehashed from a dozen more convincing cop thrillers of the past. A clunky screenplay that lacks any spontaneity or fizzle allows little for a solid cast to work with. Eldon Perry’s final dash to expose the truth, through the riot-hit streets of downtown LA is troublingly atmospheric and well orchestrated, but it comes far too late to redeem a film with investigative allusions that lapses into banality far too easily. Dark Blue’s catalogue of flaws would be much easier to accept without the presence of real-life events. The infusion of the Rodney King incident into two hours of fictionalisation demands a certain amount of responsibility to the true nature of events that Dark Blue is simply not capable of living up to.

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