A Cop on the Verge

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 21, 2003

The last time Ron Shelton made this film, it was called "Cobb" and he forgot all the guns.

I exaggerate, but only slightly. Shelton, an ex-professional athlete, has been obsessed with codes of masculine behavior his entire career, and he knew how men talked when women weren't around (it isn't pretty). These attributes made "Bull Durham" a natural for him, "White Men Can't Jump" a necessity, and "Cobb" an inevitability.

The questions he asks in all of them are extremely interesting: When does toughness become bullying? When does will to win become need to dominate? When does courage become sociopathic obsession? When does a hero become a monster?

Now, with very little deviation in theme and only slight deviation in milieu, he moves those inquiries into another world, and in "Dark Blue" Shelton studies what's old and familiar to him: excessive male aggression verging on the sociopathic, fueled by anger, alcohol, fear of aging and pure-D Gol-dang love of kicking butt.

In a ballplayer like Ty Cobb, those fiery attributes can create a legend, albeit an eminently despicable one. In a cop, they are bad news with a capital B and N.

And Eldon Perry (Kurt Russell) is very bad news. A star member of the Los Angeles Police Department's Special Investigation Section (here called the Special Investigations Squad), historically an elite if controversially gun-happy unit that went after criminals who had eluded others, he's everything we're supposed to hate: violent, racist, tough, a stone killer. He's that crown prince of macho myth, the difficult man, abusive, resentful, bitter and loud. Yet at the same time, Shelton and the movie can't quite keep from admiring his gusto, his bravado, his swagger. As I say: You hate him, but you love to watch him in action because he's the man who knows what to do next. When all about him have lost their heads, he shoots to kill. (Russell is brilliant in the role.)

The movie is set over the five days in April 1992 when a Simi Valley, Calif., jury considered the fate of the four police officers who beat Rodney King. The movie finds great symbolism in that event, as both the high-water mark of and the beginning of the end of the white empire of the LAPD, and Shelton spins into his tale the story of the downfall of the SIS within the LAPD.

Alas, the movie is so very busy. Look at poor Eldon! Look at his issues. He's got to break in a new rookie partner, Bobby Keough (Scott Speedman), he's got to solve the murder of four people in a particularly violent mom and pop robbery, he's got to please his duplicitous, manipulative, ambitious SIS boss, Jack Van Meter (Brendan Gleeson), he's got to penetrate an evil conspiracy inside the department, he's got to blackmail a superior, he's got to evade the rage of reformist police executive Arthur Holland (Ving Rhames), he's got to deal with the fact that his wife (Lolita Davidovich, actually Shelton's wife) is about to leave him and that his son hates him, he's got to prepare a speech for his promotion to lieutenant. It's hard to get this done on a mere fifth of Scotch a day, and things get even more hectic when, as all these plot tracks collide on a single day, the riots break out, so he's got to evade people throwing bricks through his windshield.

Say this for Shelton: He offends everybody equally. White conservatives will take no pleasure in his portrayal of the blue centurions as corrupt, drunken, racist cowboys, and black liberals will take no pleasure in his depiction of the rioters as violent, worthless thugs trying to steal as many televisions and murder as many innocent white motorists as possible. If both camps are mad, he must be doing something right.

But one of the things he doesn't do right is find an ending to the movie. While for much of its running time, "Dark Blue," with its incendiary violence and its straight-on look at how things probably are in a real world, really grips, it founders for a climax, and comes up with one particularly inappropriate. Climaxes, as any hack novelist knows, should reflect the character of the characters involved in them.

Shelton defies that principle. So Eldon, whatever his manifold weaknesses as a man, is believable and admirable only in action, but when the movie's destiny is at stake, he mounts a podium and delivers a long, rambling, meant-to-be ironic speech that utterly deflates the considerable momentum the film has by that point built up. The movie ends not with a bang but a wimp. Come on, Eldon, do something, don't just talk. What are you, suddenly sensitive or something?

Dark Blue (116 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for extreme violence.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company