Los Angeles, 1992. In a cheap motel, and as the television news reports on the not-guilty verdict of the Rodney King trial, police detective Eldon Perry (Kurt Russell) loads both a pistol and a shotgun before stepping out into the field.
Ron Shelton’s 2002 police drama Dark Blue kicks off with this arresting scene, before jumping back five days to showcase the lead-up to that pivotal moment. It is a bizarrely obscure film. It boasts an original story by acclaimed novelist James Ellroy, a screenplay co-written by David Ayer (Training Day), direction by Oscar nominee Shelton (Bull Durham, White Men Can’t Jump), and top-notch acting by Russell, Ving Rhames, Brendan Gleeson, and Michael Michele. It should be a widely celebrated contemporary classic and award-winner. Instead it grossed less than its budget, went direct to home video in several countries, and was effectively dismissed by critics and award juries. If I was to develop a list of America’s top ten most underrated films, Dark Blue would make it to somewhere near the top.
The film tracks Perry, a corrupt LAPD detective with a drinking problem and a fiery temper, as he and his partner Keough (Speedman) investigate a quadruple homicide at a Korean grocery store. That investigation brings Perry up against his own commanding officer (Brendan Gleeson) as well as deputy chief Arthur Holland (Ving Rhames) – who knows of Perry’s corruption and is looking to prosecute him as part of his bid to become the city’s first African-American police chief. Multiple plot lines and intersecting schemes develop against a racially charged backdrop, as the city awaits the verdict on the real-life trial of several police officers over the beating of Rodney King a year earlier.
The use of the Rodney King trial gives the film both a rising sense of tension – the film’s climax deliberately coincides with the outbreak of violence across Los Angeles – and a deeply charged atmosphere. Both on the street and within the force there is a sense of a powder keg just seconds away from exploding. It is a remarkable achievement for Sheldon as director: while his earlier films were generally excellent, they were primarily sports-based comedies. This dramatic thriller marked fresh territory for him, and it seems a shame he never really worked in this sort of territory again.
If any role seemed perfectly suited to win Kurt Russell an Oscar it was this: in his hands Perry is flamboyant, glib, disrespectful, and positively gleeful. Beneath the veneer of this boyish exterior Russell works on levels of rage, racism, and a deep self-loathing. Watching the various layers of this complex protagonist is not always a comfortable experience, but it is a wonderfully multi-layered one.
Other members of the cast deliver more direct, stream-lined characters. Ving Rhames plays Holland with a sense of honour and directness, while Brendan Gleeson is all repulsive cruelty as Perry’s captain Jack Van Meter. Michael Michelle (ER) demonstrates a strength that many roles have prevented her from showcasing, while Scott Speedman – as the rookie detective Keough – is gifted with pretty much a tailor-made character. I am not a huge fan of Speedman’s work, but this is far and away the actor at his very best. Lolita Dadidovich is excellent in a somewhat under-used role as Perry’s long-suffering wife; she does not get many scenes, but those she gets she works perfectly.
Dark Blue is aggressive, political, dramatic, and remarkably well staged and shot. Released in the middle of a wave of Los Angeles-based police thrillers, including Training Day, Narc, and TV series The Shield, it is well overdue for a critical re-evaluation.