In the job, there are the bad days, and there are the worse days. Los Angeles, a divided city of great wealth and pitiful slums, of two populations living side by side separated by their zip codes and the colour of their skin and the very different expectations they have of their lives and futures, between them a police force trying to keep the fractious peace in difficult circumstances.
Based on a script by the acclaimed crime novelist James Ellroy originally entitled Plague Season, it was substantially rewritten by David Ayer then known as a writer on U-571, Training Day and The Fast and the Furious and now established as the director of Suicide Squad and Bright before further changes were made by director Ron Shelton to be shot as Dark Blue, released in 2002 and now available on Blu-ray by Arrow, but the background of the story played out on the LA streets a decade before.
It was in March 1991 that the taxi driver Rodney King was dragged from his vehicle and beaten by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department; the incident videotaped and seen worldwide, the officers were tried but ultimately acquitted, their release the final spark which ignited the Los Angeles riots of April 1992, Dark Blue taking place in the last few days leading up to the verdict and the immediate aftermath.
Reeking of the time in which it is set, the opening shots of grainy night-shot hand held video footage mix the original recording of the assault on King with Shelton’s recreation of the chase which preceded it before incorporating footage from outside the courtroom as the trial took place even as Detective Bobby Keough (The Last Rites of Ransom Pride‘s Scott Speedman) is under investigation for the use of deadly force only three weeks after his assignment to the LAPD Special Investigations Section.
A front-line surveillance unit trailing dangerous suspects, Keough is exonerated by the investigative board though the verdict is not unanimous, Assistant Chief Arthur Holland (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation‘s Ving Rhames) already harbouring misgivings about the conduct of Keough’s partner Sergeant Eldon Perry (Big Trouble in Little China‘s Kurt Russell) and their superior Commander Jack Van Meter (Edge of Tomorrow‘s Brendan Gleeson).
Those suspicions are not unfounded, Perry later drunkenly telling his wife Sally (Gods and Monsters‘ Lolita Davidovich) that Keough had actually fumbled and dropped his gun and that it was actually he who fired the fatal shot; both of them caught in that lie they are tied together as they are asked to investigate a multiple homicide at a convenience store where the prime suspects are informers under Van Meter’s protection, small-time gangsters Darryl Orchard and Gary Sidwell (rapper Kurupt and Gotham‘s Dash Mihok).
A downward spiral of compromise and corrupted obligation, Perry is a third generation lawman caught in the undeclared war of the streets, he has inherited the attitude of his father and grandfather, men without pity, doubt or second thoughts who believed sometimes hard action must be taken to keep the innocent safe, but while neither a particularly good or noble person he is not irredeemably bad.
While Perry wants Keough to learn from him, that does not mean alongside his skills and experience he is not a bad influence, casually and unapologetically racist, sexist and homophobic and willing to plant evidence to justify an arrest, dragging his partner along for the ride into the mire he has created, Keough trying to put the brakes on to no avail as Perry tailspins out of control, the situation within the station becoming as hostile as the streets as Holland closes in on them.
Essentially it is Russell’s film, Shelton’s dry but informative commentary frequently observing that the film is structured as a frontier western, an environment in which Russell has much experience from Gunsmoke and The Road West to Tombstone and more recently Bone Tomahawk, and while Dark Blue is a solid but not outstanding example of its genre it is one which has remained sadly relevant fifteen years after release and twenty five after the events which it depicts with the concerns of race relations and the role of the police in exacerbating that tension undiminished.
Atypically for an Arrow release the majority of the accompanying special features are archival materials previously available on the DVD release covering shooting on the streets a stone’s throw from the worst parts of the city, particularly the climactic riot scenes “planned like a military campaign,” the look of the film and a conversation with the police advisor as well as unedited interviews with the principals from the electronic press kit; while all offer moments of insight, intended as promotional material rather than analytical they are disappointingly superficial.