In the grim and bitter cop drama Dark Blue, Kurt Russell comes out to play. This smart, underrated actor can usually do most roles upside down in his sleep, but this one — dirty L.A. cop Eldon Perry — requires his full attention and commitment, and he floods his scenes with all the cynical humor and offhand callousness they can hold. Eldon is a self-satisfied corrupt, racist bastard, and Russell, who has always come across as an intelligent man secure in his brainpower, gives us a protagonist who knows full well how rotten he is but covers it with fancy justifications. Russell fans, take note: This is probably the strongest work he’s done in movies¹, and that includes his John Carpenter films.
Dark Blue situates Eldon, and many equally soiled cops, in an L.A. on the verge of flames: the movie is set days before the 1992 Rodney King verdict that drove furious citizens into the streets. James Ellroy, chronicler of “bad white men” in such books as L.A. Confidential, wrote the first version of the script, set during the Watts riots of 1965. Screenwriter David Ayer (Training Day) brought the script into modern times, adding his own touches; the relationship between Eldon and his rookie partner Bobby Keough (Scott Speedman) echoes that between Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke in Training Day.
This movie, though, is not about the rookie’s disillusionment; it’s about the gathering self-disgust of the veteran cop, who takes orders from the even more corrupt higher-up Jack Van Meter (Brendan Gleeson) and reacts with rage when Bobby questions Van Meter’s orders — supposedly because Van Meter served on the force with Eldon’s father, but possibly because Eldon, too, secretly questions it; you get the impression that Eldon’s tirade against Bobby is really against himself. Eldon has been okayed for a lieutenant spot, and under Van Meter’s watch he gets to do pretty much what he wants, but what does it profit Eldon if he gains the world but loses his soul?
When two snitches under Van Meter’s protection commit a robbery and a multiple homicide, Eldon and Bobby swing into action, only they swing the wrong way. They’re encouraged to go after a pair of ex-cons who had nothing to do with the crime, and we see the various ways the process is bent to Van Meter’s will — he has dirt on everyone, including Deputy Chief Holland (Ving Rhames), who regards Van Meter with disgust and wants to bring him down. Van Meter, a gelatinous manipulator who isn’t above blackmail and murder to keep the LAPD unit running smoothly, is straight out of James Ellroy’s playbook; he would’ve gotten along fine with the James Cromwell character in L.A. Confidential.
Going far afield from his usual sports comedies, director Ron Shelton delivers a clean, taut piece of work with a respect for self-revealing rants. Kurt Russell gets most of the rants, and slams them home beautifully, especially during Eldon’s career-suicidal speech at his badge ceremony. The language in Dark Blue is coarse yet eloquent, from Eldon’s self-definition as “a gunfighter raised up in a family of gunfighters” to his laundry list of slimy things he’s done in the name of protecting and serving. By the time the L.A. riots flare up, Eldon points out that it’s men like himself and Van Meter who brought the city to this crisis, but he doesn’t really need to. If anyone looks at home in the riots, it’s Kurt Russell driving his car through the chaos, waving a gun and grimacing through his cracked windshield. It’s not whether Russell is worthy of a serious cop drama; it’s whether the movie is worthy of him, and it is.
¹In hindsight, his work in Miracle, which came the following year, probably has the edge.