Dark Blue (15)

Cops and rotters
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In the list of Things You Would Never Know Without The Movies - a compendium of Hollywood clichés - number one is "During all police investigations it will be necessary to visit a strip club at least once". Early on in the new police corruption drama Dark Blue two LAPD detectives are assigned a multiple homicide case, and their first port of call is, wouldn't you know, a strip club. In a lesser movie the scene wouldn't be worthy of note, but this picture elsewhere makes a heartening effort to subvert the trite and tested; it's an effort which, for the most part, pays off.

Set over five days in April 1992, the film takes as its backdrop the Rodney King trial and the fateful acquittal of the four police officers who assaulted him. Detective Eldon Perry (Kurt Russell) knows all about evading conviction. He and his young partner, Bobby Keough (Scott Speedman), have just managed to hoodwink an Internal Affairs investigation into a fatal shooting, and now they're crowing over their escape with tumblers of scotch. Perry is not a good advert for the LAPD - he's a strutting macho bully, a racist and a liar - yet he's just been made lieutenant. Perhaps there's a diligence even in corruption. "At the end of the day the bullets are in the bad guys, not us", he says with a job-done shrug. Perry has been mentored by his boss, Jack Van Meter (Brendan Gleeson), who's an even riper villain, sponsoring robbery and murder from behind his big desk.

Ten minutes in and the stink of moral rot is rising off the screen. Little wonder, given the film's creators. The screenwriter, David Ayer, also wrote Training Day, in which Denzel Washington's flamboyantly corrupt cop does a Faust on rookie Ethan Hawke, even though he might have had a better chance of stealing his soul over a number of weeks, rather than allowing himself just 24 hours. Ayer has based his screenplay on a story by James Ellroy, a writer well-known for his toxic studies of police no-goodery, the best of which, L.A. Confidential, he adapted for the screen in 1997. There are points of contact between that film and this, notably its satanic figureheads (Van Meter is plainly an heir of deadly Dudley Smith) and its invocation of paternal influences; both Perry and Keough followed tough fathers into the force.

Dark Blue doesn't have a performance quite in the order of Kevin Spacey's in L.A. Confidential, but Kurt Russell gives his all, and then some, as Perry. His eyes sunk deeper within a pouchy, tired face, Russell gives a compelling impression of a man whose swaggering bravado shields a lifetime's disappointment, from himself as much as from anyone else. His corruption isn't motivated by money; he lives in an averagely comfortable home with a wife (Lolita Davidovich) who's drowning her marital misery in booze - she knows that he needs the job more than he needs her. It's the cowboy code of the streets that drives him on, roughing up a black suspect ("Speak fucking English!") or else blackmailing another cop into handing him a warrant. "Haven't you any shame?" the cop asks him as he pockets the papers. But how would shame impinge on a man who, having vowed to "protect and serve", now treats the city as a private fiefdom where his own word is law?

The point of the movie is that we find out. The director Ron Shelton initially seems a fish out of water here, having made his name on annoyingly glib sports movies such as Bull Durham, White Men Can't Jump and Tin Cup. But he also made Cobb, with Tommy Lee Jones as the nastiest bastard ever to play baseball, so he knows something about testing audience sympathies with deeply unheroic characters. He also gets to the truth of a certain type of male - the strapping jock who won't, or can't, grow up. They refuse to accept that the towel-flicking camaraderie of the changing room is over, and still look around for a weedy kid to pick on. It is probably no coincidence that Shelton cast Russell, who took some years off from acting to play pro baseball.

As long as Russell is on screen the film feels alive, and carries with it an imminent sense of combustion: every radio and TV buzzes with the latest from the Rodney King trial. Unfortunately, the turpitude of Perry and Van Meter is made to contrast with the shining moral beacon of black assistant police chief Holland (Ving Rhames), a character whose deep-voiced rectitude locates him somewhere between an Old Testament prophet and Martin Luther King. The spectacle of Holland vowing to clean up the force in front of a church congregation stops just short of a celestial light zapping through the roof and a voice bidding him to lead his people to the promised land. When righteousness is this clunky it only invites disbelief.

The film climaxes in this blustering vein as Perry steps up to the podium to collect his lieutenant's badge but instead delivers a rambling apology for his life and a denunciation of "the system", the kind of rant which, were he to try it in real life, would prompt a team of security men to pounce on him like a ball in a scrum. Much better if Shelton had finished the picture in the chaos of the previous scene, with Russell buffeted in his car through the rioting and looting on the streets of South Central - the grim fallout of the Rodney King verdict. Shelton conveys the terror of this quite magnificently, a dusty inferno of random beatings and burnings meted out by mobs of roaming avengers.

Would the justice have rung a little too poetic if Perry, the urban scourge, had been consumed in these flames? Well, the film would have been short of a grandstand ending. And perhaps there's a suggestion that it would be harder for a cop like Perry to live, knowing that this disaster is of his own making.