On Screen

'Blue': The Good Guys Are Bad Boys

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 21, 2003

THE TITLE of the film "Dark Blue" provides the first clue as to what's in store in this thriller of sorts about racism and corruption in the Los Angeles Police Department. On the one hand, it refers to the color of the LAPD uniform. On the other, it suggests a gloomy, disheartening and joyless worldview.

Well, not entirely joyless.

As depressing as its name implies, the pessimistic drama, set in the days leading up to the verdict in the first Rodney King police brutality trial, still manages to throw out one tiny ray of hope that we, as a society, might not be doomed to a future of rampant malfeasance on the part of those sworn to protect us. Coming in the form of one very wicked cop's 11th-hour conversion, that ray of hope is thin, like I said, but I'll take anything that reassures me that the world I live in might -- just might -- not be as bad as the one depicted in director Ron Shelton's harrowing and compulsively watchable morality play.

Based on a story by noir writer James Ellroy, this grim vision of one man's spiral into the moral abyss tracks Eldon Perry (Kurt Russell), a third-generation cop who is about to make lieutenant after half a lifetime putting away bad guys. Unfortunately, he has also put away (and by "put away," I mean "killed") some good guys along the way. Okay, so maybe they weren't exactly good guys, but they were often the wrong bad guys.

Is that so awful? What's the big deal about one less lowlife on the street, even if it wasn't the lowlife you were looking for? That's the philosophy that Eldon tries to instill in Bobby Keough (Scott Speedman), his young partner on the elite Special Investigations Squad, when the two are assigned to the investigation of a high-profile quadruple homicide.

Well, what do you know? Eldon and Bobby accidentally stumble upon the actual perps in the case, but are told to come up with a patsy by their even more venal SIS boss (Brendan Gleeson), a piggish desk jockey up to his jowls in chicanery of his own. Cowed by the powerful man, Eldon goes along with it; Bobby more reluctantly. One problem: Assistant police chief Arthur Holland (Ving Rhames) seems to be on to the fact that the two have lied about another recent shooting. With the assistance of a beautiful aide (Michael Michele), Holland means to strip Eldon and Bobby of their badges before they can do any more damage.

Have I mentioned that Bobby is sleeping with the aide?

Do not look to this mess for clear-cut heroes or villains. Holland is no angel himself, and even the corrupt cops are capable of doing the right thing once or twice, albeit too late to make much of a difference.

The climax of "Dark Blue" comes just as the not-guilty verdict in the King case comes in, opening up the wounds of a city whose pain causes an eruption of volcanic fury. It is against this backdrop of lost souls that Eldon tries to find his, wandering through a burning Los Angeles that looks, literally, like Hades, and where a man can open up another man's head with a cinder block just because of the color of his skin. There is a certain satisfaction in watching Eldon turn his back on the culture of corruption that has sustained him, but, as "Dark Blue" seems to remind us, he has done the devil's work too long for his change of heart to mean anything except to the ultimate judge.

DARK BLUE (R, 118 minutes) -- Contains violence, obscenity, sex talk, a strip-club scene and raw, racist language. Area theaters.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company