Produced by Alphaville Films and Cosmic Pictures
Directed by Ron Shelton
Screenplay by David Ayer and James Ellroy
Distributed by United Artists
Produced and distributed by 20th Century Fox
Written and directed by Mark Steven Johnson
Ron Shelton’s Dark Blue opens with the infamous video of Rodney King taking a beating at the hands of four Los Angeles policemen on March 3, 1991. It closes a year later with the race riot that ensued after an all-white jury in Simi Valley exonerated the cops. This exercise of strenuous civil disobedience left 54 dead, 2,500 injured, and a billion dollars lost to theft and property damage. You would think a narrative unfolding between these events would display some respect for things as they were. This, unfortunately, is not the case. Dark Blue boasts some exceptional performers, especially Kurt Russell and Brendan Gleeson, but the script lets them down badly. Shelton gives us another corrupt-cop/innocent-cop melodrama, the kind you can see nightly on television. He and his writers, James Ellroy and David Ayer, even include the phony moral uplift TV hacks invariably epoxy onto their denouements. There are, nevertheless, traces of a good movie in this cinematic wreck, albeit buried under a paddy wagonful of clichés.
Still, it is a delight to see Russell and Gleeson working together. As the bluff, no-nonsense police captain, improbably named Jack Van Meter, Gleeson makes the most of his brief appearances. The Irish actor is utterly convincing as a hardened administrator whose constant smile masks a heart stonier than Barbra Streisand’s at a Republican fundraiser. Russell, as always, inhabits his role with exquisite nonchalance. Like Gene Hackman, he is a “star” who refreshingly plays his part, not himself. As Eldon Perry, he is a special-investigations detective so thoroughly submerged in the corrupt cop culture of South Central Los Angeles that he’s nearly oblivious to the harm he is doing. Still, he is not wholly without conscience. After he needlessly kills a career criminal, he sends some money to the creep’s widow and son on Christmas. What more can anyone ask? From Shelton’s perspective, Perry is the diseased part that stands for the unwholesome whole.
We first meet Perry as he guides his rookie partner, Bobby Keough (Scott Speedman), through an official inquiry. The police review board wants the young man to justify killing a suspect he was pursuing. Having been coached by the master, Bobby clears himself. Later, we learn the shooting was almost certainly not necessary. But this does not trouble Perry and Van Meter. Instead, they celebrate their young colleague’s successful deception by breaking out the whiskey, which is never far from their reach. (They would happily pour four fingers on a report of smog over L.A.)
Since profiling is one of the abuses Shelton attacks, he might want to look to himself. Although Van Meter and Perry are not classically Irish names, Gleeson, by force of brogue, and Russell, by sheer thespian blarney, play their characters as if they both have living roots in the ould sod. Shelton seems to think it follows, as Paddy does Bridget, that they must be wedded to the bottle.
Perry and Van Meter are badged hooligans for whom the worst kind of human behavior is an endless source of hilarity. Having long ago concluded that the world is a festering pus hole, they get a charge from hitting the streets and pushing the crud around, laughing all the while at the stupidity and wickedness they encounter— drug dealing, drug abuse, pimping, rape, robberies, gunplay, etc. Waxing philosophical for a moment, Van Meter explains that “I am charged with performing unpleasant tasks so others can perform pleas-ant ones” and goes on to observe, “We’re working in a gassy s- -t dome.” When Bobby recoils at such talk, Perry puts him right. Van Meter, he reminds his callow colleague, is old school, and he deserves their unstinting loyalty. He’s one of those cops, Perry continues, nearly choking with sincerity, who “built this city with bullets.” His sincerity, however, is compromised by the way Russell delivers this line. He gives it an all-too-practiced air. You sense that he has used such formulas often to salve his shrinking conscience. Russell’s Perry is otherwise too hotwired with booze and adrenaline to look beyond the bromide. He cannot wait to corner his next perp and blast his eyes with mace or shove a 9 mm. into his neck. He fairly giggles at the prospect. Without lowlifes to bat around, he would not know what to do with his energy. Russell reminds me of Hackman in The French Connection (1971) or Denzel Washington in Training Day (2001). Like their performances, Russell’s crackles with an energy so irrepressible it’s hypnotic. How can someone so vile be so compelling? Shelton does not seem to have a clue, which is unfortunate: This should have been one of his major points of exploration.
Shelton wants us to believe that Perry’s brand of policing is endemic and that it is responsible for the smoldering resentment in the underclass. How could such treatment not lead to crime and rioting among those on the receiving end? But this is a chicken-and-egg argument. Does Perry’s craziness engender the sulfurous conditions of ghetto life, or does the ghetto create Perry? Growing up in Brooklyn, I knew several young men who joined the police force. After a few years—often only a few months—they began to exhibit some of Perry’s milder traits. Their beats invariably included low-rent neighborhoods, since Brooklyn’s social classes are rarely separated by more than a few blocks. They would come home full of stories about the depths to which human beings could descend—junkies dying in their own vomit; prostitutes with faces razor-carved by their pimps; fathers molesting their daughters; parents fleeing apartment fires of suspicious origins, leaving their children behind. They recounted these experiences with an odd mixture of disgust and levity. Initially shocked by the horror of what they were witnessing, they relied on laughter to keep it at arm’s length. How else could they go on? Once in a while, the more perceptive among them would talk about the decent people they would come across: a father holding down three jobs so he could send his son to Catholic school; a single mother working the graveyard nursing shift at a local hospital so she could walk her daughter to and from school, fearing that, unattended, the girl might fall prey to the blandishments of local pimps; people who risked their lives reporting drug pushers, only to watch these predators continue their rounds mysteriously undeterred. Ultimately, however, many of the young cops began to lose sight of these good people. Because of their professional obligations, it was the brazen thuggery and spectacular madness of such neighborhoods that loomed largest in their minds, finally and sadly obscuring the fuller picture. They came to believe, wrongly, that decency was an anomaly in the besieged communities they patrolled. I suppose it is not surprising that some cops develop tunnel vision, but it is tragic for all involved that cynicism so often becomes the dark at the end of the tunnel.
When Shelton finally portrays the riot in full bloodtide, the images seem, at first, quite convincing. He does not quail from showing us streets full of young blacks looking for trouble, beating at passing cars with bats, garbage cans, and bare fists, trying to pull white passengers through smashed windows. We see them performing a Reginald Denny on one hapless white, dropping a cinder block on his head again and again. Others crisscross the screen, their arms loaded with television sets, audio equipment, coats, and whatever else they can grab. Curiously, Shelton ignores the many blacks who tried, however ineffectually, to stave off the rioters. Some drove the streets, picking up stranded whites and taking them away from danger. These were people who understood that the Simi Valley verdict wasn’t the insult to their race many in the media had so facilely implied, that things were too complex for such simpleminded equations.
Shelton, however, has no time for fine distinctions. He is too busy blaming unconcerned upscale whites and cynical peace officers for black rage. This is only part of the story, however. When times were socially and economically much worse for blacks—say, 60 or 70 years ago—whites walked their neighborhoods without qualms. (Admittedly, this was not generally true the other way round.) This was before welfare programs had succeeded in encouraging blacks not to marry by rewarding women for having babies out of wedlock; before the same programs encouraged black men to think of entry-level jobs as offensively demeaning; before such self-appointed leaders as Jesse Jackson began to practice a racial politics that suppressed thoughtful black voices; before such racial racketeers as Al Sharpton led campaigns to drive white and Asian merchants from black neighborhoods, further undermining their chances for achieving economic stability.
At one point during the riot, we see Perry looking out over Los Angles from a hilltop courthouse. He watches the swelling conflagration in the distance. For once, he is not laughing. His face sags with grim recognition. We are to assume that he finally realizes that he and other cops like him are responsible for the devastation below. Would that it were so simple. How easy it would be, then, to answer Mr. King’s famously plaintive question, “Can’t we all just get along?” Sure, nothing to it. Just get rid of the racists: white, black, brown, red, yellow, and olive—including cops, prosecutors, judges, politicians, spokesmen, citizens, and anyone else who may have expressed reservations, however mild, concerning a tribe not his own.
Daredevil also concerns a crime fighter who bends the law. In this case, however, we are supposed to applaud his extra-legal tactics. At least I think we are; Mark Steven Johnson’s film is so muddled that it is hard to tell. Certainly, Ben Affleck’s bland impersonation of Marvel Comics’ answer to D.C. Comics’ Batman does not help.
Like Batman, Daredevil, a.k.a. Matt Murdock, has underworld issues. His father was murdered by Kingpin, a literally larger-than-life crime boss played with cheerful abandon by the giant black actor Michael Clarke Duncan, who, incidentally, makes Affleck look even more affectless than usual.
By day, Murdock is a blind legal-aid lawyer who, unaccountably, prosecutes rather than defends the accused. By night, he dons red leather head-to-toe, the better to go after the ne’er-do-wells he cannot nail in the courtroom. Having lost his sight as a child, he has developed his other senses a bit more than usual. This guile explains why, eyeless in New York City, he can swoop from tall buildings to pounce unerringly on villains below, and, then, without so much as a Miranda by way of introduction, knock the bejesus out them. There’s nothing better than blind justice.
Daredevil is mildly entertaining, but don’t take the youngsters along. For a comic-book movie, it includes scenes of inexcusable cruelty. In one, Daredevil gloats from a subway platform as he watches a train run over a villain he has just thrown onto the tracks. True, he does go to Confession afterward, this being a Catholic-themed movie. I’m afraid, however, that kids generally see through such dodges. What they will make of Daredevil’s girlfriend (Jennifer Garner) and her bustier-assisted décolletage is anybody’s guess. I will say nothing of the scene in which she discreetly doffs said garment to put Daredevil’s superpowers to the test.
At least Colin Farrell, another Irish import, hits the cartoon target squarely with a hissably hilarious performance. As you might expect, he plays a character named Bullseye.