The cowardly and unlawful beating of Rodney King was not an aberration but follows a trend stemming from the Civil War.
— Haki R. Madhubuti, “Introduction, Why L.A. Happened (1993)
Dark Blue begins with a familiar bit of videotape: Rodney King’s beating by L.A. police officers. Twelve years later, and as many times as you’ve seen George Holliday’s tape, it still horrifies. Worse, following the Simi Valley verdicts and the L.A. uprising, it has become an emblem of U.S. racism and injustice. It is, perhaps, in this sense that the image continues to resonate most deeply.
With all this in mind, the decision to start with Holliday’s footage seems nervy. You wouldn’t call up the memory or the legacy without something serious or at least thoughtful, to say about it. Unfortunately, Dark Blue, set in 1992, doesn’t get much beyond using the trial of the four officers as ominous backdrop for its focus — a team of corrupt, self-righteous cops. The trial pops up on tv screens and in conversation, as detectives worry that the city will “explode” if the verdict is not guilty.
You know they’re right about this, and so, you wait for the inevitable. Most annoyingly, by the time the inevitable comes to pass, the rest of the movie has devolved into conventional action-melodrama, complete with bad white cops’ sacrifice, redemption, and just punishment. Its troubling race politics may not be quite so egregious as Mississippi Burning (or, for that matter, Alan Parker’s new movie, The Life of David Gale, opening the same day as Dark Blue), but it’s in the ballpark.
That’s not to say the film doesn’t feature black characters with speaking parts, or even that these characters aren’t formidable in their own right. You have your two black cops — noble deputy chief Arthur Holland (Ving Rhames) and his efficient assistant, Sergeant Beth Williamson (Michael Michele) — as well as a couple of predictably excessive black thugs (both well played by Kurupt and Master P; Kurt Russell observes that “Rappers in general are really good with words — they’re really good with lines,” but seriously, these cats can act).
With the trial going on, Holland, for one, has his hands full: his diverse community, not to mention his officers, are increasingly on edge, and his career (he wants to be Los Angeles’ first black police chief) is increasingly uncertain. Still, Holland, Beth, and the designated criminals are plainly in place to serve the larger story of white detectives, presuming privilege and suffering guilt. And this means that the issues surrounding “Rodney King” (the events and media coverage more than the man, who appears only as the crumpled form beneath blurred police batons). These issues — poverty, abuse, institutional racism — are reduced to background, overcooked and accompanied by Terence Blanchard’s jazz-bluesy score. This is a scary city, where scary figures hang out on scary corners and slouch with scary insouciance. No wonder the cops are tense.
Here, the primary tension emerges in the Special Investigations Squad. Much like Rampart’s infamously shady anti-gang unit (CRASH), SIS regularly plants evidence, threatens informants, executes suspects, and steals from local businesses, justifying its “work” as ridding the city of drug-dealing, violent scum (this rationale will also be familiar to viewers of FX’s The Shield). Adapted by David Ayer (Training Day) from a story by James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential), and directed by Ron Shelton (Play It To the Bone), Dark Blue comes with the usual “somber” buddy movie concerns — overweening machismo, loyalty, racism, and the loss of a good woman.
Top SIS detective Eldon Perry, Jr. (Kurt Russell), has bits of Russell Crowe’s Bud White and Guy Pearce’s Exley in him. For the first, he’s the Squad’s muscle, dispatched by boss Jack Van Meter (Brendan Gleeson) to clean up messes, with whatever force seems necessary: “Just go do what you do,” snarls Van Meter. And for the second, Eldon comes from a long line of cowboy-cops, and feels pressed to live up their examples. In fact, he goes so far as to cite his actual-cowboy grandfather’s enviable ability to go round up a cattle thief and hang him without any such thing as due process. By this point, late in the film, he’s under considerable duress, and it could be that he’s using these good old days ironically, to exemplify the dire corruptions of the current system.
Then again, maybe he wishes the good old hang ’em high days were back in effect. As he embodies this current system, Eldon carries a particular burden. He sees himself as the defender of the law, believing that he must work outside the law to do so. He blames his own extreme behavior on the fact that all the criminals are more extreme, exemplifying the argument made by the police officers on trial: Rodney King, as the defense infamously had it, “controlled and directed” the encounter, and so required sustained brutal force to be subdued.
Believing that such force is necessary, Eldon’s investment in his identity as a cop has taken its toll. He’s descended into alcoholism and, as one deft scene in particular suggests, feels painfully distanced from his corrections officer wife Sally (Lolita Davidovich) and adolescent son. To illustrate, he comes home from a hard day at the review board, whereupon he recounts for wifey how he lied. Specifically, he covered up the fact that he shot a suspect because his wussy-newbie partner, Bobby (Scott Speedman), was supposed to be getting his “first shoot” credit.
This tangle of deceits and masculine measures is only the tip of the SIS iceberg. Partly depressed by the partner’s lack of machismo and partly worn down by his own excess of it, Eldon sits on the sofa with Sally, unable to find a way to talk to her except in bang-bang cop stories. She’s tired of it.
No surprise: Eldon misses that cue. Instead, he drinks that night, and next day, redevotes himself to being the perfect “team player,” in order to make order of his mounting chaos. His mentoring of Bobby is complicated by the fact that the kid is also Van Meter’s nephew. Worse, said kid is increasingly queasy about the job’s requisite immoral and illegal activities (this angle recalls the generational and ethical dynamics of Training Day). Still, simultaneously impressed and intimidated by Eldon, Bobby works hard to win approval: when he devises an adept reading of a crime scene, Eldon almost smiles.
For an added complication, Bobby is also having girl issues, specifically, an affair with Beth, which he is careful not to mention for fear of his overtly racist partner’s likely reaction. Though Bobby and Beth agree upfront that they don’t even want to know each other’s last names, well, things change, and he starts to really like this girl. Wouldn’t you know, he grows a conscience large enough to disrupt his initiation into the SIS.
All the while, subplots pile up like dead bodies. Holland is suspicious of the film’s initial (offscreen) shooting, the one approved by the review board; he initiates an investigation, which in turn invites payback: Van Meter has incriminating pictures of him and a woman who is not his wife (Khandi Alexander, memorable in what might best be termed a “thankless role”).
Everyone plays dirty. Van Meter assigns Bobby and Eldon to a multiple homicide at a Korean-owned convenience store (more shades of L.A. Confidential). The primary suspects are a conveniently interracial team (Dash Minok and Kurupt) who happen to be working under Van Meter’s auspices. Boss man instructs Eldon to pin the murders on two locals with records and Bobby grows even queasier — as the trial winds to its verdict and the city’s minority communities are roiling, the film narrows its focus to the white guys’ blooming angsts.
At this point, Eldon would embody the imploding city if he had a clue what was wrong. Or rather, his drive toward self-awareness is made visual as he careens through the streets en route to the showdown; he’s still hunting his prey, even though (or because) he knows the worst injury has already been inflicted and that he’s largely partly responsible. As Eldon’s life and self-image collapse, the city burns. And Barry Peterson’s cinematography turns alternately poetic and devastating: looters, assailants, and frightened locals rush past Eldon’s car: he’s fierce and irrational, they’re menacing, confused, feeling suddenly entitled in ways they’d never imagined possible. It’s a stunning sequence, but it only reveals Dark Blue‘s lost opportunities.