Director Ron Shelton could be forgiven for his decision to revisit L.A.'s mean streets -- or the mean corner of Florence and Normandie; Reginald Denny's beating by an angry mob is re-created here -- had Dark Blue brought something original to its police ball. Shelton, director of Bull Durham and White Men Can't Jump, wants to make a statement about race and politics in a corrupt department protecting and serving a decaying city. But he uses the King riots as window dressing, not commentary or context. The city burns, but nothing has been learned, nothing has been gained, nothing new has been said.
That Dark Blue initially works has less to do with Shelton's filmmaking than his early use of the unforgettable footage of officers Timothy Wind, Theodore Briseno, Laurence Powell and Sergeant Stacey Koon beating King in March 1991. From there, the director leaps forward a year to disheveled (and fictional) Sergeant Eldon Perry Jr. (Kurt Russell), the swaggering head of the LAPD's Special Investigations Squad, swigging Crown Royal in a seedy motel room while waiting for the verdict. Then we jump back five days earlier to a pair of thugs sitting in a car. They're about to swipe an Asian grocer's safe and gun down four bystanders in the process. One bets the other that the jury will let the cops walk. "Bet you some pussy," he says, confident of the verdict.
Perry is boozing it up in the motel room not because he's concerned about the impending conflagration but because he's gotten himself into a real mess, the result of years spent doing the dirty work of Jack Van Meter (Brendan Gleeson), a crooked chief who might as well be the grandson of L.A. Confidential's Dudley Smith. Perry, a loud racist and homophobe, doesn't own up to his wretched past -- killing the wrong man, say, to clear up a quadruple homicide at Van Meter's behest -- until it gets him in trouble. Unlike L.A. Confidential's Jack Vincennes, Perry has no interest in trying to remember why he became a cop.
Perry is screwed from the jump. Early in the film, he and his young partner Bobby Keough (Felicity's Scott Speedman, looking like a young Russell) sit before a police board. The chiefs are ready to clear Perry and Keough in the killing of a suspect, but the sole black officer on the board, Assistant Chief Holland (Ving Rhames), doesn't buy their story. Holland is a career officer who doesn't mind pissing down the ladder on the climb up -- even if it means becoming an outcast in a racist department.
But the film still can't keep pace with real-life headlines about fake drug busts and a shady LAPD, and the filmmakers can't resist the familiar rhythms of this kind of story. So Shelton's movie degenerates into prolonged rooftop shootouts, a car chase through South Central and the Big Speech where all that's wrong is made right while the media's cameras roll. All that's missing is a voiceover announcing, "Tonight, on a very special episode of The Shield."