Ron Shelton’s powerful, uneven police drama Dark Blue takes place over four days in April 1992, culminating in the riots in South Central Los Angeles in the wake of the Rodney King–beating verdict. The film’s protagonist, Eldon Perry (Kurt Russell), a veteran of the LAPD’s Special Investigations Squad, predicts at the outset that if the cops, all white, are found not guilty, the city will burn. He’s right, of course, but since Perry thrives in the sizzle of hellfire, this prediction is more like wishing upon a star. Perry thinks the accused officers should have “wasted” King, but he is not, strictly speaking, a racist; no doubt he would feel the same way about a white victim who rumbled with the cops. He’s an equal-opportunity hater who is both the product of a corrupt system and its champion.
Perry comes from a long line of police officers—his father was the partner of the current SIS boss, Jack Van Meter (Brendan Gleeson)—and he views himself as a street-smart gunfighter in an urban jungle. But the depravity within the department eventually becomes too much even for Perry. Investigating a quadruple homicide, he is pressured by Van Meter to stay away from the two men he is certain are guilty and find some other pair to finger. Perry does not lack for candidates: In his view, there is no shortage of unconvicted criminal scum walking the streets. But things get out of hand, and Perry’s rookie partner, Bobby Keough (Scott Speedman), must bear the brunt of the violence. Even more than the frame-ups he is called upon to carry out, it is Keough’s trashed innocence, and his downfall, that reawaken Perry’s conscience. He becomes a rogue within an already rogue outfit of the LAPD.
Most Hollywood movies display violence without showing its human consequences. A cop kills someone, maybe broods over it a bit, and moves on. The strongest sections in Dark Blue detail exactly how Keough, compelled to kill, is mortified by his decision. Shelton, working from a script by David Ayer based on a story by James Ellroy, knows how to bring us up close to the cops’ fear and loathing. As the director of, among other films, Bull Durham and Tin Cup, he’s become the poet laureate of sports movies, but, more than being about athletics, those movies share a high sense of masculine conviviality. At its best, Dark Blue has that same spirit, only darkened—it’s a film about how comradeship, unchecked, can lead men straight into the abyss. The cops in the movie have looked into that abyss. Some of them, like Van Meter, enjoy the view; others, like Keough, are ruined by it. Perry combines the look of both men: He’s mesmerized and aghast by what he sees. His smile is a rictus of pain. Kurt Russell has made some poor choices in his acting career, but this role is a reminder of how good he can be.
There are some marvelous moments in Dark Blue: A sad, tense scene between Perry and his alcoholic wife, Sally (Lolita Davidovich), has just the right mix of revulsion and lust; a church appearance by deputy chief Arthur Holland (Ving Rhames) gets at the ferocity of the city’s racial division; a re-creation of the South Central riots makes the horror fresh. What keeps Dark Blue from being absolutely first-rate is a persistent pulpiness in the dialogue and plotting that, at times, makes the movie resemble a standard TV cop show. Even more, the movie backs off from its blackest implications in favor of a rousing (and unconvincingly staged) act of public redemption.
Perry is a son of a bitch, all right, but by the end, a crowd-pleasing sentimentality attaches to his character; Shelton wants to humanize this demon, but he doesn’t give Perry’s darkness its full due. The dragon becomes the dragon slayer. And so the movie, ultimately, is unsatisfying: We’ve been brought face-to-face with a monstrosity only to end up with empty-sounding bromides. We are told that “things are going to get ugly before they get better,” though we are left in little doubt that things will get better. And yet, the post–Rodney King history of the LAPD has been a chronicle of continued corruption.