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DARK BLUE ****

By GUY FLATLEY

CAST: Kurt Russell, Brendan Gleeson, Scott Speedman, Ving Rhames, Michael Michele, Lolita Davidovich

DIRECTOR: Ron Shelton

SCREENWRITER: David Ayer

 

The year is 1992, and the citizens of racially inflamed Los Angeles anxiously await the outcome of the trial of four white cops accused of viciously assaulting Rodney King, an unarmed black man. Eldon Perry, a cop who is not on trial, doesn’t want to dwell on the King case, because it makes his blood boil. These four men—men of the law, like Perry, his father and his grandfather—had risked their lives to protect the innocent, and now they are being marched into a courthouse and threatened with prison sentences for merely performing their duty. At least, that’s the way Perry sees it.

Leathery, profane, hard-drinking and brutal, Eldon Perry is set for a promotion from sergeant to lieutenant in the Special Investigations Section of the LAPD. In the eyes of the top man at the SIS, Jack Van Meter, Perry deserves the honor and pay boost because of his unquestioning loyalty and the raw obsession he brings to the pursuit and punishment of criminals. Even if it means framing, blackmailing and occasionally shooting to death scumbags who in fact were nowhere near the scene of the crime, Perry will get the job done. That’s why Van Meter doesn’t hesitate to order him—and Bobby Keough, his coltish, eager-to-please partner--to set up and then terminate a rapist and a child molester as retribution for their alleged murder of four people in a savage burglary. Although Perry suspects the real murderers are a pair of Van Meter’s most treasured informants, he’d never blow the whistle on his boss. As it turns out, the police chief’s trust in his gung-ho underling is justified, at least for the moment; it’s Bobby Keough, the new, dangerously sensitive kid on the squad, that he should be worried about.

Van Meter, acted with chillingly understated menace by Brendan Gleeson, is far more evil than he at first seems, and Perry, played by Kurt Russell in an uncompromising, ultimately heartbreaking performance, is not a total monster in the end. Indeed, it is Perry’s progression from bigot to impassioned warrior for justice that makes this harsh, grimly absorbing thriller the first American must-see movie of the year. This is the finest, deepest work yet from Ron Shelton, director of "Bull Durham," "White Men Can’t Jump" and "Tin Cup." The screenplay, an adaptation by David Ayre of a James Ellroy story, is strong, sharp and thickly textured, if a touch unbelievable in its depiction of the love life of Beth Williamson, a beautiful sergeant who has had one hot affair with Assistant Chief Holland (the movie’s token honest cop) and is now having another with rookie Bobby Keough. Michael Michele, Ving Rhames and Scott Speedman are so persuasive in these roles, however, that you are apt to overlook the strain on credulity. And Lolita Davidovich, as Perry’s neglected, understandably alcoholic wife, is fine, too.

Kurt Russell’s complex, brilliantly shaded performance, though, is the one that will stick longest with you. Had "Dark Blue" been released a couple of months earlier, he would surely have been Oscar-nominated as Best Actor of 2002.