As many critics will be obliged to assert, Dark Blue, the new film from director Ron Shelton, is not a sports movie—not by a longshot. It's a disparaging cop thriller set on the eve of the 1992 L.A. race riots (which a cynic could remark was a contact sport of its own) that plays out like a rancid combination of Training Day and the white-washed elements of L.A. Confidential. This is no coincidence considering that the film's screenwriter is Training Day scribe David Ayer, whose script is based on a story by Confidential author James Ellroy. More surprising is that Shelton, whose sports-themed films like Bull Durham, White Men Can't Jump and Tin Cup have a flair for characterization and human nature beyond their immediate stories involving courts and diamonds and greens (Blaze, one of his best comedies, has nary a pass or putt in it), fails to come up with a movie that is more than a slick, clueless package of foul professionalism. Shelton has done serious before: 1994's Cobb, one of the criminally overlooked dramas of that decade, displayed a exceptional fearlessness in its ability to approach and embrace the most unpleasant of protagonists without making excuses or trying to lighten the mood. Dark Blue plays a little like Cobb without the benefit of having no boundaries; the buttons it pushes are all equipped with fail-safe devices. What's left is a clunky plot in service of only the most evident significance: crime doesn't pay.
The film has the calling card plot of a by-the-numbers thriller masquerading as an Important Movie: A corrupt detective (Kurt Russell) caught between his idealistic younger partner (the very green around the gills Scott Speedman) and his even more corrupt boss (Brendan Gleeson) gets involved with a conspiracy connecting a brutal bodega massacre and a deep-rooted police scandal primed to boil over. Though Dark Blue avoids turning into an outright action movie via sustained shootouts and chases, its limp character work keeps it squarely confined to programmer status. It's interesting to note just how predictable Ellroy's storyboarding can be when stripped to the bare essentials—Russell stands in as the film's Jack Vincennes, Gleeson is its Dudley Smith, etc.—and how vague and unremarkable his characters feel on the big screen without the hammerhead force of his prose to drill away at your emotions. Russell, who along with Dennis Quaid is getting more fascinating to watch as he gets older, turns in a performance that considerably downplays the character's continuous stream of uninspired traits (heavy drinking, domestic troubles), and the film rings true only in scenes in which he begins to examine the way his fraudulent resolutions affect his partner and family. Perhaps because none of the other characters are allowed as many (or perhaps any) interesting nuances, the supporting performances are jarringly out of touch with reality. Gleeson is shallow and exaggerated as Russell's casually racist superior while Ving Rhames, as a straight-and-narrow captain determined to bring them both down, is a victim of his own overly noisy earnestness. Still, they're both easier to watch than Speedman, whose gullible, blank-stare acting is too perfectly suited for his character's rookie status.
That Dark Blue's template roughly coincides with the Rodney King race riots reeks of a pathetic attempt to over-conceptualize what is, at heart, a superficial, obvious morality play, especially considering that the film has some of the ugliest, most offensive racial cartoons since Sidney Lumet took on one of his own misbegotten police corruption stories in Night Falls on Manhattan. The two mindless ghetto thugs who commit the film's opening slaughter (played by Dash Minok and Kurupt) are so stereotypically crude and violent that the film, which hinges on their participation in a number of crucial scenes, threatens to veer off into bad taste burlesque. Shelton has found a way to portray racism through hyperbole before (in Cobb, yet again), but these two characters are merely a means to grease the film's plot mechanics. There's no explicit commentary to be gained from these laughable fools, just a lot of indifferently inflicted cruelty and hatred along the way to a functioning story that, in the process, forces us to turn off our brains. That serves the exact opposite purpose the film is aiming for—Dark Blue is a movie that wants to be taken seriously, but that is impossible when serving up such unsubtle parody. It would matter little if the film were otherwise a masterpiece of refinement (which it isn't); these childish caricatures are enough to bring down even the mightiest of agendas. Try as it may to be the Serpico of its time, Dark Blue is caught up in the shadow of the equally bogus Training Day while trying to avoid a fatal collapse into Police Academy territory.