Say Something Nice: DARK BLUE (2003)

A new feature on BMD, celebrating great moments in not-great movies.

Welcome to what we hope will become a regular weekly feature here at Birth.Movies.Death. Movie fans know all too well that you have to wade through a lot of disappointment to find the good stuff. And it’s not always some binary pile-sorting of "good" from "bad": sometimes there’s quality material smack in the middle of the muck. This feature is dedicated to those gems - memorable, standout, even great moments from movies that...well, aren’t. It will be an exercise in recognizing oases of excellence that’ve been unfairly eclipsed, in trying to find the good in things, and in focusing on the positive. Should be fun.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Dark Blue should have been great. A story of police corruption written by David Ayer (hot off his script for the similarly-themed Training Day), the 2003 film follows a crooked cop named Eldon Perry (Kurt Russell) at the boozy end of his rope in the days leading up to the 1992 Los Angeles riots. As Perry stomps over the Constitution in the name of law & order and at the behest of his boss (Brendan Gleeson), Dark Blue tries to examine the implementation and institutionalization of male aggression as a tool of society, and it attempts to posit LA as the swollen appendix where all that frontier-taming masculinity has festered and turned septic, threatening to burst.

It’s a fantastic thesis, and a great idea for a film. The problem is that director Ron Shelton (Bull Durham) often directs the thing like one of his breezy comedies, complete with reaction shots played for laughs and a disastrously incongruous score. There are other problems (a sympathetic portrayal of corrupt police officers is maybe the slipperiest of slopes), but Shelton’s direction makes one wonder how someone like Sidney Lumet might have handled the material.

But for better or worse, within this well-intentioned misfire of a film is what might be the performance of Kurt Russell’s career.

Russell is genius casting: his face, his presence, and his career baggage embody the can-do spirit of the American lawmen from which Eldon Perry is descended. But Russell’s acting chops smuggle something else into the role (and the film). He simultaneously takes the character to the very dark places required by the script, and he puts a nuanced, all-too-human face on the conquering, racist spirit that built America. Along that spectrum, Russell is by turns charming and terrifying, hollow and haunted. In the clip we’re featuring today, a defeated, repentant Perry shows up to accept a promotion, burn down his career, and atone for his sins in front of his colleagues, the media, and his son - all in one five-minute speech. It’s presented a little out of context here, but Russell, with his “aw shucks” candor as he recounts literally being raised to be a killer for America, is electric in it.

In a just world, the Oscar categories wouldn’t be divvied up among the same 12 movies in a given year. Maybe the year’s best editing is in a film no one saw. Maybe the best score belongs to a movie that doesn’t deserve any other awards. And maybe the best performances are found in movies that otherwise fall short. Russell’s performance in Dark Blue presents a strong argument for this theory.

Note: we know this YouTube clip might not be viewable in all countries; you can stream Dark Blue on Amazon.