Shining the Light on Racism

Issue section: 

Review of 'Dark Blue', director Ron Shelton

In the US on 29 April 1992, an all-white jury acquitted four white police officers of the assault of an African-American man, Rodney King. This despite a videotape showing the officers hitting King with their batons 56 times, kicking him, and shooting him with an electronic stun gun.

Dark Blue, a film about the life of a Los Angeles police detective, is set during the days leading up to the infamous rioting that followed the Rodney King verdict. The film is based on a story by James Ellroy, author of LA Confidential, and reanimates many aspects of that celebrated film noir, this time amid the rage of the early 1990s.

Dark Blue chronicles several days in the life of Sergeant Eldon Perry (Kurt Russell), a member of the LAPD's Special Investigations Squad, who routinely assaults citizens, plants false evidence and has no qualms about murdering suspects. In relating Perry's investigation into the bloody heist of a Korean grocery store, Shelton takes us into a world of police corruption and self redemption that acts as a metaphor for LA's wider awakening.

In spite of its somewhat simplistic storyline - there's Perry's younger partner (Scott Speedman), who is on his way into similar corruption; their even more monstrous SIS boss (Brendan Gleeson); and a righteous assistant police chief (Ving Rhames) intent on exposing their corruption - the screenplay is thematically multifaceted, filled with the usual Ellroyan irony, and particularly skilful in the way it trades off the Rodney King riots. Added to the blend is a plethora of early 1990s West Coast gangsta rap - from CPO to Cypress Hill - which provides the soundtrack to the unfolding story.

Serious screen time for rappers like Master P and Kurupt also lend the film an unmistakable authenticity. And while at times it may not be easy to watch, it presents violence not with the usual theatricality, but with a certain graphic abruptness. While many movies attempt to imitate the personal psychologies of cops and criminals, Dark Blue hits closer to the mark than most. And as Perry, Kurt Russell revels as a complicated, prejudiced police officer who treats those around him with little more than an afterthought. Perry is a man unbound by laws and morality, and Russell conveys that in a performance of emotional volatility.

But where Russell excels, the rest of Dark Blue has trouble maintaining that standard. The film is unconvincing at key moments and it is easy to pick holes in its plot. While it is captivating within its boundaries, those boundaries ensure that it is little more than a generic portrayal of police corruption and brutality. Nevertheless, what Dark Blue lacks cinematically, it endeavours to make up for politically and socially. Whereas most directors would have shied away from something as politically explicit as the LA riots, Shelton manages to integrate the poverty, social exclusion and police complicity that many African-Americans experience into the actions and themes of the story.