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The ultimate cop flick 

Somewhere in its mutation from the mystery story to the cop flick, the familiar movie about the detective's search for a criminal changed not only its protagonist and his methods, but also its moral focus. The transition probably began three decades ago with the almost simultaneous appearance of some powerfully influential motion pictures: William Friedkin's The French Connection, Don Siegel's Dirty Harry, and Sidney Lumet's Serpico. Those films transformed traditional cinematic police procedure, with its close attention to the process of official investigation and its implicit endorsement of the criminal justice system, into its contemporary form, with its wild car chases, pyrotechnic gunfights, and police officers who often break the law in order to enforce it. Gene Hackman played the tough detective as a working-class Captain Ahab, utterly obsessed with the drug kingpin he pursues; Clint Eastwood hung up his spurs to play the cop as avenging angel, armed with an enormous pistol and an immense righteousness; Al Pacino played the one pure cop in a force overwhelmed by its own corruption.

            As Ron Shelton's new picture, Dark Blue, demonstrates, the cop flick of today reflects the influence of those movies and their numerous progeny; in fact, the movie at times resembles something like a compendium of the subjects and themes of the whole history of the form. It employs some highly publicized current events, a notorious background of official misconduct, and a story that might have come from any news report, in any medium, any day of the week. Ironically, the cops are mostly responsible for its entirely predictable series of increasingly brutal and bloody crimes, which should surprise no one who reads the newspapers or goes to the movies.

            Kurt Russell plays Eldon Perry, a top cop with the Special Investigations Squad, a tough, elite unit within the Los Angeles Police Department that apparently pursues the most difficult and potentially most dangerous cases. As in virtually all such movies, he works with a new partner, Bobby Keough (Scott Speedman), a rookie he must instruct in the particular police methods of SIS. Under his tutelage, Keough undergoes an education in blood, an initiatory experience that forces the young officer to abandon all his principles of conduct and belief. At the same time, after a good deal of pain and suffering, the mentor learns something from his student, undergoing his own initiation, becoming aware for the first time of his own compromises, failures, and betrayals.

            Although their boss, Jack Van Meter (Brendan Gleeson), protects Perry and Keough from an internal review board that questions their fatal shooting of a suspect, for reasons of his own Van Meter also obstructs their investigation of a quadruple homicide. Following Van Meter's orders and the general pattern of SIS, Perry leads a raid on the home of two other felons, innocent at least of that particular crime, and, to test his partner's courage and loyalty, forces Keough to kill one of the men in cold blood, which implicates him fully in the criminal activity of the squad. That moment defines the disastrous nature of the partnership and, in effect, explains the turmoil and devastation that provide the context for the movie's climactic actions.

            Ron Shelton, chiefly known for some fine, generally humorous and relaxed sports movies --- White Men Can't Jump, Bull Durham, Tin Cup --- maintains a sense of urgency throughout the film, using the rapid pacing, quick cuts, hand-held camera work, and loud soundtrack familiar to veterans of the form. The movie also positively wallows in its own violence, showing the cops practicing a sort of punching-bag method of interrogation throughout and, of course, shooting people whenever possible. The constant brutality of gesture and language pushes the picture way over the top at times --- nobody except the dedicated assistant chief of the department (Ving Rhames) ever questions the conduct of the police, who seem able to impose a sort of legal criminality on anyone they believe to be a suspect.

            The real energy and relevance of Dark Blue, however, grow out of its deft use of a historic contemporary trial for both structure and meaning. The movie occurs during the final deliberations on the fate of the police officers accused in the beating of Rodney King, a sequence that frequently appears on television screens in the background of various scenes. When the jury finds the officers not guilty, as everyone will remember, the ghettos of Los Angeles explode, providing a context for Eldon Perry's final desperate attempt to redeem himself as a cop.

            The chaos and anarchy that overwhelm the action ultimately demonstrate the consequences of police brutality and corruption, the logical conclusion not only of the behaviors in the film, but also of three decades of cop flicks.

Dark Blue, starring Kurt Russell, Brendan Gleeson, Scott Speedman, Michael Michele, Lolita Davidovitch, Ving Rhames, Dash Mihok, Jonathan Banks, Graham Beckel, Khandi Alexander, Eloy Casados, Marin Hinkle, William Utay; story by James Ellroy; screenplay by David Ayer; directed by Ron Shelton. Cinemark Tinseltown; Hoyts Greece Ridge; Loews Webster; Regal Culver Ridge; Regal Eastview; Regal Henrietta.

You can hear George and his movie reviews on WXXI-FM 91.5 Fridays at 7:15 a.m., rerun on Saturdays at 11:15 a.m.

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