It would be an understatement to say that crime writer James Ellroy reveals the dark underbelly of Los Angeles. His city doesn't have an underbelly so much as a cancerous, scab-encrusted boozer's gut - hairy, greasy and tattooed with racist and misogynist slogans. No wonder his books have never translated easily to the screen: even LA Confidential, as dark a thriller as mainstream Hollywood ever produces, pulled its punches somewhat, gilding Ellroy's night with gorgeous retro glitter.
But Dark Blue, an ostensibly less ambitious film for which Ellroy has written the original story, proves to have the courage of its convictions. Directed by Ron Shelton - best known for sports stories such as Bull Durham - and scripted by David Ayer, Dark Blue is anti-authoritarian, anti-patriarchal and anything but an advert for the moral good health of the Los Angeles Police Department.
The story is set in 1991, against the background of the beating of black motorist Rodney King by four LA police officers. While the city awaits the outcome of the officers' trial, LA is riven with racial tension, and so is its police force. Seasoned LAPD detective Eldon Perry (Kurt Russell), however, can't see what the fuss is about: he thinks King's assailants were simply using "the approved tactics". Perry is trying to teach such tactics to a rookie partner, Bobby Keough (Scott Speedman), who has distinct qualms. Perry puts expediency first, and when his commanding officer Jack Van Meter (Brendan Gleeson) orders him, "Do what you do", it's understood this will involve, at the very least, roughing up interrogation subjects, framing convenient suspects and generally raising hell (this LA is never more than a step away from the inferno anyway).
Ellroy's story is, by necessity, not nearly as complex as his novels, but it's getting there. There's a bloody robbery in a Korean grocery; Van Meter assigns Perry to provide a cover-up; Keough, meanwhile, is sleeping with the female sergeant (Michael Michele) who is number two to Holland (Ving Rhames), a likely candidate for LA's first black Chief of Police. Holland and Van Meter are openly at war: there are mutual investigations, dirty tricks and straight-out blackmail.
LA here looks about as savoury as Dodge City, and indeed Perry remembers his copper dad teaching him the workings of justice, Old West-style. American law enforcement, the film suggests, is a history of bad fathers teaching bad thinking to impressionable sons: you can see how Dark Blue might have a particular American currency.
The film takes an awkward turn in the denouement when Shelton opts for the prosaic, stagey rhetoric of courtroom drama. But otherwise, Dark Blue is bracingly hard-edged, right down to Terence Blanchard's score with its trenchant, ragged trumpet. Shelton directs with teeth clenched: the big stake-out scene is paced with a patient regard for tension, and the cast is terrific. Russell, usually a bland, one-dimensional tough, is surprisingly good as the repellent but vulnerable Perry, his face weighted down with bitterness, bigotry and disappointment. Also outstanding are a spine-chillingly avuncular Gleeson, his face more than ever like a bunched-up baseball mitt; and the under-rated Lolita Davidovich, coolly brittle and unforgiving as Perry's wife. Dark Blue is an upscale B-movie in classic cynical style, but it more than lives up to the great Ellroy agenda, providing a compelling essay in modern American social history from gutter level.
There's further male trouble on view in Animal Factory, the second feature by Steve Buscemi, which arrives in the UK three years after it was made. Fans of his Trees Lounge, be warned: the wait wasn't entirely worth it. Animal Factory is a prison drama adapted from his own novel by Edward Bunker, himself a former San Quentin convict and a bit-player in Reservoir Dogs. The film traces the fortunes of virginal Ron (Edward Furlong), a spoilt rich boy jailed for dealing drugs. Inside, he's befriended by Willem Dafoe's hardened, widely respected old lag, who - seemingly from quasi-paternal affection - saves Ron from some of the clink's nastier surprises.
Animal Factory feels authentic up to a point: for a start, it's jammed with grizzled, battered and generally distressed mugs, some of them belonging to veterans such as Seymour Cassel and Bunker himself. In a triumph of dizzying improbability, the undoubted star turn is a barely recognisable Mickey Rourke as Ron's cellmate, a rasping queen done up to the nines in denim, a lacy bra and a lavishly seasoned New Orleans accent.
Despite the authority of Bunker's script, the film feels aimless and disappointingly well-mannered. Dafoe, despite his shaven skull, never quite sells himself as a ruthless-but-fair cerebral alpha male, a hard-nut for Dostoevsky readers. Convincingly claustrophobic but faintly theatrical, the film has moments where plausibility distinctly takes a dive, notably in a scene featuring a melancholy musical cabaret by inmates apparently on transfer from the Jean Genet Wing. The film covers all the routine prison-pic bases - racial divisions, everyday corruption, the tarnishing of (relative) innocents - but none of it really grips, not even the spurts of violence. Serious-minded as it is, Animal Factory seems very much an actors' ensemble impression of the hard life. Above all, it's hard to believe that a fresh-faced daisy like Furlong's character would last five minutes in such a place, protected or not: with his delicate cheek-bones and pageboy flop, he looks considerably less hard-bitten than Winona Ryder.Reuse content