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"I'd like an Oscar, please,
and some fries with that."

Dark Blue

Certain events in American history burn so brightly that they beg for serious film treatment. Indeed, the Rodney King beating, police trial, and subsequent riots have echoed in the movies over the last decade (including last month's National Security), but until Dark Blue, nobody has directly wrestled with them. Unfortunately, working in service to box office hopes and perhaps a star ego, the film grapples weakly then taps out.

It's easy to see why star Kurt Russell would be attracted to the material. Taken from a story by James Ellroy, a poet when writing about police corruption (especially in the LAPD), the film places Russell in the last five days before the King verdicts were announced.

As police Sgt. Eldon Perry, Russell plays a conflicted crackerjack cop who does whatever he feels it takes to achieve justice on the mean streets of L.A. It's a meaty role, driving the film, and even when it makes little sense, the actor is never less than compelling.

But Perry is the only character even remotely approaching complex. Everyone else in Dark Blue comes straight out of Central Casting, from his venial supervisors and baby-faced partner, to even (most disappointingly) Ving Rhames as Perry's potential nemesis, straight arrow Deputy Chief Holland. Failing the wooden puppet test, Rhames' main task in this film is to look concerned.

Part of the problem comes from what a huge event those riots were, and how large the people involved loomed. Holland's main goal is to be L.A.'s first black police chief, and quite simply, we know that didn't happen. (Or rather, not to a man named Holland.) And somehow, Dark Blue manages to completely leave out the controversial Chief Daryl F. Gates. If your knowledge of history comes straight from the movies, you'd think that Holland succeeded in taking over the LAPD and scouring the corruption from it.

Director Ron Shelton and his team try to solve this problem by making the historical events a backdrop for their story, but they never strike the right balance. They want us to be aware of it, as Perry occasionally goes off on self-righteous rants about how the four cops on trial were just following procedure. He also prophesies the riots themselves to both his wife (Lolita Davidovich) and his bumbling partner Bobby Keough (Scott Speedman).

Mostly, though, we're to follow Perry's awakening to his own corruption as he tracks down two killers who held up a Korean grocery store. Though he immediately figures it out, he is ordered by his boss (and Bobby's uncle) Jack Van Meter (Brendan Gleeson) to look elsewhere. Why? Because the heist was done at Van Meter's request; the two idiot crooks give him the lion's share of the take from their crimes.

For some reason, it takes Perry forever to figure that much out. At least the film respects us enough to not hide the mastermind's identity, sparing us one bad plot twist. When it does all come to a head, though, every single player has been telegraphed straight out of the Dirty Harry series, but with the bonus of the incredibly hot Michael Michele calling Russell evil, just in case we hadn't figured it out.

Michael Michele: Hot, talented
and probably wishing she hadn't left ER
right about now.
Yes, Perry drinks, he possibly womanizes (we never know for sure), and he does terrible things in order to make the streets of L.A. safe. But evil? Proving that the divide between Ellroy and this bastardization of his work is a great one, the film never has the courage to even entertain the notion that maybe his actions really are necessary. It's as if someone saw an episode of The Shield and sent a memo: "well, we can't have that."

Even when going into the war zone of the riots, the mob ends up doing justice for Perry, in a distasteful steal of an indelible image from the actual time. In real life, the white man who got his head bashed in with a cinderblock was an innocent man who happened to be in the unexpectedly wrong place at the wrong time. Here, he got what he deserved. If I spoiled something for you, I apologize, but the moment sickened me. In its effort to take a high moral stance, Dark Blue proves morally bankrupt.

Not that I agree with Perry's methods. In this kind of film, you should be able to understand that he deserves a fall. But Dark Blue neatly divides the police into Caucasians and ethnics. Every white cop is corrupt. Only Speedman's love of the African-American Michele allows him some semblance of redemption. (Though, to be fair, the "real killers" are an interracial team with no apparent prejudices against anyone but white police. They're equal opportunity a-holes.)

The Rodney King case remains controversial, and maybe we the public will never really know the truth. By setting the film against it, the filmmakers also get to pay homage to post-9/11 attitudes, that the cops are all good guys now.

But you know what? Then and now, they're still men and women. Some are strong; some are weak. Most do good, and some do bad things, regardless of their backgrounds. Dark Blue tries to reduce a case some see as black vs. white to simple black and white. And it just doesn't work that way.

Despite Russell's strong performance, this may be the worst film of the year. All the more heart-breaking, because it has such good intentions.

What's it worth? $2

Derek McCaw

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