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Corruption and ambition: (l-r) Russell and Rhames in Dark Blue.

LA Existential
By Ann Morrow

Dark Blue
Directed by Ron Shelton

A police-corruption drama idirected with pulpy dexterity by Ron Shelton and starring aging actioner Kurt Russell, Dark Blue unnervingly defies expectations from its first five minutes. Set in South Central Los Angeles, the film opens with the real footage of the Rodney King beating. It’s 1991, and the seething city is on the brink of a conflagration, awaiting the verdict for the white cops who committed the beating. At the same time, homicide investigator Sgt. Eldon Perry (Russell) is pacing his bedroom like a caged animal. The film then flashes back five days, to Eldon gleefully telling his greenhorn partner, Bobby Keough (Scott Speedman), that if the cops are acquitted, the city will burn. “They should’ve just wasted him,” he says of King.

Russell is on record as saying that his performance in Dark Blue is the best thing he’s ever done, and it is. Eldon may be bigoted, alcoholic and corrupt, but he’s also an extremely effective member of the LAPD’s elite Special Investigations Squad. It’s obvious that he’d rather take a bullet than a sensitivity-training course, yet despite his virulently offensive banter and total disregard for procedure, he manages to earn our respect with his ruthless pursuit of the city’s most bestial criminals. As Eldon admits late in the game, his job, which he learned from his cop father, is to prey on the predators who prey on society. Aside from credibility, what Russell gives to this nearly psychotic hardass is a tiny pinprick of decency. It’s just enough for him, and the audience, to hang on to.

Based on a story by James Ellroy (LA Confidential) and adapted by David Ayers, screenwriter of Training Day, Dark Blue makes good on its pedigree, plunging the unwitting Eldon into a gripping downward spiral of deceit, greed, racism, and cronyism. Bobby is awaiting his own verdict, for shooting a perp. But the internal investigation is a sham: Bobby’s uncle, Jack Van Meter (Brendan Gleeson) is chief of the SIS, and was once partners with Eldon’s late father. Shelton, director of Bull Durham and White Men Can’t Jump, gets the locker-room loyalty just right as the men jocularly conspire to get Bobby off. Once cleared of charges, Eldon and Bobby are assigned a robbery-turned-murder-spree committed by a couple of crackheads, a crime that is presented with graphic nonchalance.

What Dark Blue does far better than the gratuitously sadistic Training Day is to demonstrate the need for dehumanized soldiers in the urban combat zones created by the crack epidemic. A man with a conscience isn’t likely to survive, and it looks like Bobby might not make the grade. In fact, he’s not nearly as steely as his detective girlfriend (E.R’s Michael Michele). Eldon, who isn’t so much as racist as an equal-opportunity misanthrope, susses out the suspects within hours.

And then he’s inexplicably reigned in by Van Meter (perhaps only Gleeson, the great Irish actor, could convincingly yank the chain of a loose cannon like Eldon). Meanwhile, the force’s deputy chief, Arthur Holland (a powerful Ving Rhames), is looking into the SIS cover-up to advance his own righteous ambition. Almost as shocking as the film’s offhand violence is the scene where Holland and Van Meter exchange words in an elevator; the display of institutionalized hatred is all the more repellent for being expressed in the sotto-voce tones of two diplomats. A jolt of another kind comes when Eldon’s wife (Lolita Davidovich) calls it quits, exposing what’s left of Eldon’s humanity like a raw nerve.

Conflict by conflict, Dark Blue escalates into a scathing depiction of corruption that goes beyond how kickbacks tend to lead to cold-blooded murder to plumb the even queasier realm of psychic damage. Despite a grandstanding ending, the film’s morality is as tough as its characters.

The Executioner’s Dirge

The Life of David Gale
Directed by Alan Parker

In reading Elvis Mitchell’s New York Times review of The Life of David Gale, I had to laugh; Mitchell referred to director Alan Parker’s rewriting of the civil rights history in his infamous Mississippi Burning—a rewriting that “made it seem as if the FBI, not Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King, brought about the movement.” This description is an apt one for Parker’s entire oeuvre. Here is a director who sports a jones for noble ideals like civil rights and, now, death-penalty reform, but who immerses those ideals in lowbrow theatrics. And so David Gale purports to question the humanity and justice of the death penalty—while making its opponents of the same look just as whacked as its proponents.

Kevin Spacey plays the title character, a down-and-out professor whose fall from grace takes up far too much of the movie, at the expense of the murder mystery. Then again, maybe that doesn’t matter so much, since Parker and screenwriter Charles Randolph make it perfectly clear from the get-go that poor, morose, loser Gale is innocent. Gale is on death row for the rape and murder of his former colleague and partner in the anti-death penalty movement, Constance (Laura Linney). His lawyer arranges for high-powered journalist Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet) to interview him for the three days preceding his date with death. Described as “Mike Wallace with PMS,” Bitsey is everything a bad writer would imagine a female reporter to be—she’s bitchy, angry, and certain that Gale is guilty. So much for objectivity. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that by day three, Bitsey will be experiencing doubts as to Gale’s guilt, not to mention getting in touch with her inner sensitivity. But can she find the proof she needs in time to stop his execution?

Despite its length, David Gale moves along at lightning speed. It’s easy to get caught up in one’s own internal, plot-defeating arguments. Why did David wait so long for these interviews? Why isn’t it obvious to Bitsey and her intern Zack (Gabriel Mann) that Gale’s setup is incredibly well-planned? And, most important, how can we expect Bitsey and Zack to crack the case when they can’t even figure out how to get their rental car serviced?

Had Randolph and Parker focused solely on an old-fashioned, beat-the-clock mystery, they might have had something, despite the innate stupidity of their characters. But Parker is keen to jam as much Meaning as possible into the framework, so, in following each of Gale’s interviews with Bitsey, we have words like “justice,” “question,” “truth,” and “responsibility” pounded onto the screen amid a backdrop of bass drums beating a staccato societal warning. Apparently, the filmmakers think they’ve upped the ante by having Spacey, who can be so good at playing ambiguous, continue his post-Oscar descent into playing Jesus, albeit a Jesus without any spirit. Had they left Gale’s innocence in question, we might have had more to interest us. When all is said and done, and everything is explained right down to the tiniest detail, not only does what happen seem downright weird—it just plain doesn’t make sense.

—Laura Leon

The Gods Look Down and Laugh

Gods and Generals
Directed by Ron Maxwell

Gods and Generals, the prequel to the 1993 TNT hit Gettysburg, should’ve been titled Gods and Generals, Brigadier Generals, and Major Generals. With legions of military commanders from North and South swarming over Northern Virginia, it’s difficult to get a handle on what exactly is going on down in tabbacy country, where the Confederate Army seems to be getting the best of the Union Army. Whether this is a good thing or not is hard to tell, since the action cuts back and forth between the two sides with equal, and equally boring, reverence. Adapted and directed by Ron Maxwell with ponderous sincerity and an embalming sense of drama, the four-hour (with intermission) Gods and Generals is as wearying as a forced march.

Opening in 1861 with the outbreak of war and climaxing with the Battle of Chancellorville, the film maintains a respectfully stuffy distance (Robert Duvall as General Robert E. Lee appears with all the vigor of a man having his visage struck for a coin), concentrating on superficial authenticity to the exclusion of excitement, even during the monumentally lethal clashes. Cinematographer Kees Van Oostrum has a knack for large-scale grandiosity, but little instinct for physical narrative or tension. Emblematic moments are paid dutiful but unimaginative attention.

Whenever the protagonists have a free moment from marching off to certain death by rifle fire, they spend their time speechifying and pontificating. And on those occasions when the elaborate maneuvering does build up a tactical head of steam, Maxwell cuts away to blandly sentimental sequences involving the genteel but steely womenfolk on both sides. Gettysburg was lauded for its unrelenting focus on the strategies and carnage of the battle, but Gods, apparently, wants to be all things to all TNT viewers (the film was intrusively produced by Ted Turner).

Where the bloated script really goes wrong is with its benevolent portrayal of slavery, represented by two African- American characters who are stoically loyal to the South, despite their hankering to be free. Yet for all its false memorializing, Gods does not explain the fanatical valor of the Confederates, the vast majority of whom were not slaveowners. Only Lang as the fearsome Jackson rings true, and a braver, better film would’ve centered on this doomed commander: Devoutly religious, Jackson must have known that God could not be on his side.

—A.M.


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