Those of us who could watch Kurt Russell in just about anything can chalk up a minor victory in "Dark Blue," a better-than-expected police thriller that sees Goldie Hawn's favorite aging surfer dude getting nasty -- to surprisingly good effect.
Set in Los Angeles in the days leading up to the Rodney King riots, the story concerns a brutal, bigoted cop named Eldon Perry (Russell) and his comparatively timid partner, Bobby Keough (Scott Speedman) -- the latter of whom is facing official censure in the death of a suspect. Keough is cleared of the charge, and Perry makes lieutenant, but doubts remain in the mind of the assistant police chief (Ving Rhames), who embarks on a crusade to uncover the truth. Meanwhile, Perry and Keough have moved on to solving a robbery and multiple homicide at an Asian-owned grocery. But the reality behind those crimes has the potential to alter the police/ community dynamic in ways that even the cynical Perry can't imagine.
The setup is basically "Training Day" (and a hint of "And Justice for All" grafted onto the third act). That similarity is entirely understandable, given that "Training Day" scribe David Ayer adapted the script from a story by James Ellroy.
A certain sloppiness persists: The speed with which Perry identifies a biracial stickup duo suggests that there is only one such pairing in all of L.A., and Keough is having a steamy affair with a policewoman (Michael Michele) who insists they never learn each others' last names -- a too-obvious springboard for an identity crisis that doesn't prove all that important anyway.
Still, "Dark Blue" is a mostly successful foray out of the sports-related territory director Ron Shelton has explored in movies like "Bull Durham" and "Tin Cup." He's assembled an interesting cast: Brendan Gleeson ("The General") appears as a corrupt division head, and one of the trigger men is played by, uh, Kurupt.
The movie, however, is first and foremost Russell's show. He takes to the part of Perry with aplomb, perhaps a bit too eager to suppress his inherent likability but in most scenes investing the role with an ingrained malignancy that's frighteningly on-target. With his performance as its barometer, the film remains above the cesspool of bad-cop clichés. Even the ultimate integration of the riots into the storyline feels like a fait accompli instead of exploitation. Consider this one a little "whaddaya know" for a young year.