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Bad cops show colors

Corrupt police form the centerpiece of a film set amid the Rodney King verdict and riots

Forget good cop-bad cop. In 'Dark Blue,' it's bad cop-worse cop at best.

It's a headlong plunge into a system that leaks corruption like an oozing wound, very much in the festering spirit of its original writer, James 'L.A. Confidential' Ellroy. The Ellroy script was rewritten by hot screenwriter du jour David 'Training Day' Ayer (Ellroy now receives a story credit), but 'Blue' remains a serious, blistering Los Angeles crime thriller in which the perps have no corner on criminality.

Among the principal offenders is the pride of LAPD's elite Special Investigations Squad, Eldon Perry (Kurt Russell), first seen looking worn to a hair trigger as he awaits the verdict in the Rodney King trial.

We already know what he can only fear at this point, and it is at this point that we flash back to what has brought him and his city to the brink. The story burns like a fuse from then on.

Intertwined plot lines involve the comfortably compromised Perry and his rookie partner Bobby Keough (Scott Speedman) pursuing two lower-than-lowlife crackhead murder suspects, as well as straight-arrow Assistant Police Chief Arthur Holland (Ving Rhames) pursuing the dirty cops and crafty Special Investigations honcho Jack Van Meter (Brendan Gleeson) pulling any string or yanking any chain he can to maintain the status quagmire.

We see the system at work as Perry shows Keough the increasingly fouled ropes that eventually may become a noose. They secure their partnership by giving false testimony, rousting suspects on the grounds of suspicious skin color, planting evidence and collecting so much mutual dirt that they can only trust each other.

An example of due process is blackmailing an attorney to get a warrant to take down two suspects who have been set up for a crime they didn't commit. Don't worry, it's legal Ñ the judge approved the warrant in a bar between sips of his drink. One-martini justice.

Casting the naturally likable Russell as a morally blunt object pays off smartly in terms of twisting audience sympathies, as does making Rhames' upright chief a touch too righteous (and having both men sacrifice their marriages to their jobs). Best of all is Gleeson, whose toweringly rotten commander is spiritual kin to James Cromwell's perverted father-figure cop in 'L.A. Confidential.'

The storytelling is satisfyingly dense, gathering dramatic weight and using it for momentum. Director Ron Shelton, best known for such fleet sports films as 'Bull Durham' and 'White Men Can't Jump,' is a longtime Angeleno who knows the territory and keeps things bristling. A couple of moments (like Perry raging at Keough's naivetŽ) indulge in strong-arm stuff, but Shelton has the sense to pull more often than push.

The climax, set amid the post-King verdict riots, combines the factual apocalypse with the fictional plotting in scary, nonexploitative fashion. It works because we're seeing the explosive upshot of the simmering issues the film treats with complexity and urgency. The filmmakers earn the right to incorporate the real-life rage in their final showdown.

Unfortunately, this is followed by a come-clean grandstand play that simply doesn't wash Ñ but does have a lot in common with the easy-out finale of Ayers' 'Training Day' script. It's like trying to cop a feel-good plea against bracingly tainted evidence. Up to then, 'Dark Blue' can wear its tarnished badge with pride.