It is 1992 and the city of Los Angeles is awaiting the results of the Rodney King police trial. Detective Eldon Perry (Kurt Russell) is under investigation himself, along with his partner Bobby Keough (Scott Speedman), for the shooting of a criminal. The panel find that the killing was justified, and Perry is delighted - the investigation has been a sort of initiation for Bobby. But it hasn't gone far enough, because Bobby was supposed to pull the trigger, not Perry. Meanwhile, a robbery in a grocery store turns into a multiple murder when the two thieves shoot everyone who walks into the store as they steal the safe... an action that will lead to a downward spiral of violence for Perry.
This police corruption thriller was based on a story by James Ellroy, and he was originally to have written the script, but when that didn't work out, David Ayer was called in to adapt it instead. The result is a complex affair that is set against the rising tension in the days before the L.A. riots, appropriately, it turns out, as the aggrieved citizens' belief that the police are as dangerous as the criminals is justified by what is on show here. But Dark Blue has its cake and eats it too, when the law's unscrupulousness, in a fictional story, is exposed by the end of the film.
What holds it all together are the high calibre performances from a talented cast, and it's Russell who steals the show. His hard-drinking Perry is a larger than life character, aggressively cheerful and casually brutal, who sees himself as a cowboy, a gunslinger on the frontier of society, above the law and taking advantage of his status to deal out justice as he sees fit. However, anti-hero Perry isn't the villain, that role is taken by his trusted boss Van Meter (Brendan Gleeson) who is behind the grocery store robbery which has been carried out by two of his informants.
Bobby is Perry's protégé, and Perry treats him like a son, perhaps because his actual son has no interest in following in his father's footsteps. When Van Meter refuses to let Perry arrest the informants, he has to go after two ex-convicts who fit the description, with orders to kill them. Bobby is bullied into shooting one of the innocent men, and feels all-consuming guilt over it, enough to go to an ex-girlfriend, a sergeant (Michael Michele) who is working for Chief Holland (Ving Rhames); he is looking for corruption in the force, and is also under the pressure of blackmail.
Many of the police we see here are, and it's one of the film's clichés, little better than the criminals. The approach is that as long as you get a criminal off the streets, whether he has committed the crime he's arrested for or not, then that's a job well done. The excessive, violent means used to subdue the felons that made the Rodney King case such a scandal, is part of everyday life for these officers. If they kill the criminal, then no harm done, it's one less bad guy to worry about.
All the way through this atmosphere of a city teetering on the brink of chaos is built up, and although the riots at the end are contrived to coincide with the main story's climax, they are expertly handled. That's not all that's contrived, unfortunately: will we ever see a cop with a contented home life in the movies? And naturally, Perry gets his shot at redemption after he realises the error of his ways. But Russell's dynamic presence, and a great scene for him at an award ceremony for the finale, should leave you satisfied. This is high quality stuff, even if there's not much new but its historical setting. Music by Terence Blanchard.
American writer and director with an interest in examining the male psyche, usually in sports movies like Bull Durham, Cobb, White Men Can't Jump, Tin Cup and Play It To The Bone. Among his other films are Under Fire (which he only wrote), Blaze, Dark Blue and Hollywood Homicide. He frequently casts Lolita Davidovich, his wife.