2 out of 5 stars

Dark Blue is a hard-boiled police story set in Los Angeles, from an original script by James Ellroy rewritten by David Ayer (now famous for directing End of Watch and Suicide Squad). The year is 1992, the peak of the racial tensions that followed the savage beating of black taxi driver Rodney King by four police officers. Their acquittal from all charges sparked a week of widespread rioting, looting, assault, and murder that ended with the deployment of the US Army and National Guard.

Over 20 years later, one would assume society has made significant steps forward. And maybe we have in some respects, but considering the police killings of Mark Duggan and Michael Brown (which sparked riots in London in 2011, then in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014), we still have a long way to go. And this is without counting the endless list of abuse carried out by the police force against black people in the US. The shootings of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and most recently Stephon Clark, to name but a few, have sparked outrage around the world. But apparently still not enough to convince lawmakers that a robust reform of police methods and procedures is inevitable and overdue.

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Dark Blue opens with a sequence very relevant to these matters: a farcical Gun Board commission is deciding on the case of Bobby Keough (Scott Speedman), a rookie cop from the Special Investigations Squad who killed a suspect in unclear circumstances. Just as in the aforementioned real-life cases, the judging members seem to be in the room to certify this police officer’s version of events, rather than find out what truly happened. James Barcomb (Jonathan Banks), leading the questioning, is a good friend of Keough’s uncle, the all-powerful Chief Van Meter (Brendan Gleeson), and seems happy with the kid’s version — especially after his partner detective Eldon Perry (Kurt Russell) puts a good word in. The only one demanding a more serious investigation is Assistant Chief Arthur Holland (Ving Rhames), an ambitious black policeman who doesn’t trust Eldon and his clique.

Needless to say, Keough gets away with it, and joins Barcomb and Perry in Van Meter’s office for a cheerful toast with a glass of scotch after the hearing. It’s clear from the get-go that Eldon’s a son-of-a-bitch consumed by his twisted interpretation of justice. He channels his anger and exasperation in a job that enables his violent attitude, turning him into a bloodthirsty vigilante. He’s certainly not there to “serve and protect”. To dissipate any lingering doubts about the overwhelming level of corruption in the system, Van Meter’s next assignment for the two detectives is a delicate murder investigation he has a personal stake in. He relies on Perry to do what needs to be done and keep Keough at bay, so the inquiry doesn’t embarrass the police force at a critical moment, when the city is already on edge awaiting the verdict on the Rodney King case.

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After the splendid success of L.A. Confidential (1996), it was only a matter of time before more of Ellroy’s stories found their way to the big screen. Dark Blue echoes some of the themes from its Oscar-nominated predecessor, from police corruption to the endeavours of those with legitimate ambitions who fight a rotten system from within. But above all else, Dark Blue focuses on the oppression, wrongdoings, and moral abomination that come when those with power are free to act without scrutiny. It also tries to cram Eldon’s family struggles and Keough’s love story into the plot, on top of the murder investigation. All this while the racial time bomb is ticking, ready to explode and plunge L.A into chaos.

The more time passes, the more apparent it is that Dark Blue is all over the place and doesn’t do justice to its source material, which could otherwise be intriguing. The themes are still very relevant, but that’s hardly enough to compensate for the sheer lack of originality that burdens the film. Not even the obvious exploitative nature of certain elements is as irritating as how blatantly the film botches the investigation on the murders, a major flaw for an L.A cop story.

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Director Ron Shelton (now mostly known for writing Bad Boys 2), can hardly keep the various storylines together. Ayer, fresh from writing the vastly superior Training Day (2001), at least attempts to give a structurally sound arc to the main characters. Unfortunately, conventional tropes are abundant, and the twists are uninspired so never elicit even half a gasp. Dark Blue is just too bland and contrived to gain the right to bring up real-life tragedies for dramatic purposes. It’s only thanks to Kurt Russell that Dark Blue isn’t a total failure.

Watching Arrow Video’s new Blu-ray certainly pays off, as the early-’90s Los Angeles, with its pollution-induced orange light, is always bizarrely pleasurable to behold. It’s an odd, almost a charming image, until it reminds you of the contrast between glamorous and glossy of Hollywood and life downtown, where the poor struggle in suburbs against racial abuse and oppression. Despite all its efforts to depict this rage, violence, and injustice, Dark Blue misses too many chances to capture them effectively in all their nuanced duality.

On the plus side, for those who are fan of Kurt Russell’s filmography or enjoyed Dark Blue, this Blu-ray has a glorious amount of extra content worth exploring. Trailers, TV adverts, a director’s audio commentary, and a ‘Making Of’ documentary are a given nowadays, but always welcome. Make sure to save some time to check out two featurettes that delve a little deeper on the film’s themes: “By the Book” gives voice to art director Tom Taylor, production designer Dennis Washington, costume designer Kathryn Morrison and others who contributed to the look of the film; while “Necessary Force” features the film’s technical advisors talking about the level of authenticity of the cops portrayed in the story.

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Blu-ray Special Edition Contents:

  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation.
  • DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1.
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing.
  • Audio commentary by director Ron Shelton.
  • Code Blue, an archival documentary on the making of the film featuring Kurt Russell, Ving Rhames, screenwriter David Ayer, director Ron Shelton and others.
  • By the Book, an archival featurette on the look of the film featuring art director Tom Taylor, production Dennis Washington, costumes designer Kathryn Morrison and more.
  • Necessary Force, an archival featurette on the authentic portrayal of the cops in the film featuring technical advisor Bob Souza, Shelton and Russell.
  • Trailer and TV Spots.
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Tracie Ching.
  • First pressing only: Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic James Oliver.

Cast & Crew

director: Ron Shelton.
writers: David Ayer & James Ellroy.
starring: Kurt Russell, Brendan Gleeson, Scott Speedman, Michael Michele, Lolita Davidovich & Ving Rhames.