The Dark Side of the Force

Movies about corrupt cops are as common as road kill. But you rarely see one as skillfully directed, intensely acted and consistently gripping as Ron Shelton’s Dark Blue . The conflicted cops and twisted underworld killers who have turned the mind of writer James Ellroy into a lurid but fascinating kind of brainy crime lab for the rest of us to file away under “guilty pleasures” are some of the characters brought to life in Dark Blue . One of the best and most furiously paced films about the controversial LAPD since L. A. Confidential , it opens on Feb. 21. Be there.

When in doubt, don’t call the police: Years of bad cops have drummed that cynical message into so many thousands of heads that it’s no wonder most people are afraid to dial 911. From Dragnet to Arnold Schwarzenegger, the bad cops have taken over, and nice old Officer O’Malley on corner of Main Street is a thing of the past.

In Dark Blue , the embattled LAPD takes another hit. The setting is the time of the Rodney King scandal. While the trial of four officers charged with the senseless beating of Mr. King and the riots that resulted from their acquittal dominate the television screens, another violent chain of events is unfolding in the back streets and alleys of South Central L.A. Veteran cop Sgt. Eldon Perry Jr. (Kurt Russell) and his rookie partner, Bobby Keough (Scott Speedman), members of the elite Special Investigations Squad, are assigned to a quadruple homicide during a convenience-story robbery. Eldon has been breaking rules and heads for years to bring criminals to justice, even to the point of breaking a few laws himself. But even Eldon doesn’t suspect that the money from the safe in this latest heist is part of a much bigger organized-crime ring headed by his own boss, a tough, lethal LAPD legend named Jack Van Meter (played by the great Brendan Gleeson with a cunning, paternal teddy-bear deceptiveness that cleverly masks a terrifying capacity for evil). The only man who sees through the wreckage is the assistant police chief (Ving Rhames), but he can’t clean up the mess in his own department without help, and most of the cops are in debt to their boss already. Van Meter is the former partner of Eldon’s late father, a decorated and much-admired cop who inspired his son to follow in his footsteps. He is also Bobby’s own uncle.

Adding more complications to the internecine affairs of the bureau, Bobby is sleeping with a foxy lady cop

(Michele Michael) who is investigating them all, under secret orders from the assistant police chief, who is jockeying to become the first black police chief in L. A.-even if he has to bring down his own men to do it.

To Eldon, it’s simple: You got your villains, you got your heroes. But what emerges is a complex cat-and-mouse thriller about crime and politics in which the cats and the mice don’t always play the roles they’ve been traditionally assigned. There’s a surprise around every corner and death at every stop sign. By the time his boss dispatches Eldon to his own ambush on the same day as the Rodney King verdict, the city is on fire and it’s every man for himself. The naïve young Bobby pays a supreme price for his innocence, Eldon’s long-suffering wife (the dynamic, underrated Lolita Davidovich) walks out on their marriage, and Eldon takes the final road to redemption that will surely destroy his career but may clear his conscience.

There’s no breathing room in Dark Blue , which, you might have guessed, is named for the color of a policeman’s proud uniform. The script is by David Ayer, who wrote Training Day , and there are obvious parallels between the two films’ corrupt, seasoned cops (Denzel Washington and Kurt Russell) and their by-the-book rookie sidekicks (Ethan Hawke and Scott Speedman), who get a rude, on-the-job education quickly. But Ron Shelton ( Bull Durham , Cobb ) is such a polished and visionary craftsman that he keeps you on the edge of your seat with white-knuckle suspense and moves you through the paces of the continuous action with machine-gun timing. He also paints a rough, honest, unsentimental picture of the life of a cop: endless hours for rotten pay; no time to build a family; a deeper obsession with the people they hate than the people they love; the erosion of all the rules of decency as they try to save the world and get hated by the world for doing it.

Mr. Shelton shows cops with all of their flaws, but he also knows how to humanize them. The cinematography has the ripe, midnight look of L.A. neon. The performances are uniformly terrific. Like Dennis Quaid, the undervalued Kurt Russell is finally, in his maturing years, turning into one of the screen’s most reliable and chameleon-like stars. The handsome, British-born Canadian actor Scott Speedman, from the TV series Felicity , makes an impressive big-screen breakthrough as the idealistic young cop whose misplaced faith in the system proves to be his undoing. From the casting to the production values, there isn’t a hair-or a camera angle-in the wrong place.

Powerful, hypnotic and so carefully constructed that the plot twists are as coherent as the action sequences, Dark Blue is about men on both sides of the law and how the lines that separate them often blur in subtle but understandable ways. It’s about what happens when people of the streets are ultimately devoured by them. You may still think twice before you call 911, but after this movie, you’ll have a better idea of who you get on the other end of the line.

Take a Walk

The four most dreaded words in modern cinema are “big hit at Sundance.” More amateur dreck has been flushed down from the ski slopes of that indie-prod festival in the last few years than has ever been previously recorded in film history, and it’s still coming at us ad nauseam. You are hereby warned, at the cost of your own IQ, to avoid a deadly little bore called Gerry , fresh from Sundance in the kill-it-before-it-multiplies department. This self-indulgent bilge is about-absolutely nothing! It exists for the sole purpose of showing off the pretentious smugness of its two boy-toy writers and stars, Matt Damon and Casey Affleck (Ben’s kid brother), and their director pal, Gus Van Sant. All three are obviously weary from making too many commercial movies that turned out to be-God forbid!-popular at the box office, so they’ve pooled their budget money (about $12.95, from the look of it) on a 103-minute endurance test guaranteed to empty theaters in less time than it takes to say “Let’s go for latte.” They call it art, but Gerry is an in-joke made with Monopoly money, and the joke is on anyone foolish enough to pay real money to see it.

Messrs. Damon and Affleck play two friends, both named Gerry, who go for a hike in the desert and get lost in the wilderness. Tha-aa-at’s all, folks; nothing else happens. They walk a lot, occasionally mumble something about destiny, and get stuck on a rock. One walking sequence lasts almost seven minutes by my watch, during which neither one utters one syllable of dialogue. The high point is a sunset filmed in real time. The sky turns from blue to gray to orange to pink to indigo, and they filmed every minute of it. Who finances this stuff? What were they on? Gerry coke? The publicity notes suggest that Gerry hides deeper meanings than are immediately obvious to the naked eye. Like what? We’ve all lost our way? We’re all Gerrys? Grow up, chowderheads. Walk is exactly what your fans will do when they get a foul whiff of Gerry . Everyone else will be snoring.

Clubfooted

After the successful launch of Manhattan’s swanky new FireBird Upstairs Supper Club with Mark Nadler’s phenomenal Tchaikovsky show, the Russian ambiance has given way to a lulling Act II that, with all respect, can only be labeled a disappointment. Bing Sings Whilst Bregman Swings , a centennial celebration of the legendary Bing Crosby, is a tribute to the crooner who influenced a generation of vocalists (including Sinatra) and the famous album of the same name released in 1956 (which has just been digitally remastered on the Verve label), and Buddy Bregman, the acclaimed musical Wunderkind who arranged it in the Nelson Riddle style when he was 19. The revue-style format includes four singers, a backup trio that also chimes in on vocals, and Mr. Bregman himself, a nephew of Jule Styne and an accomplished arranger whose American-songbook albums with Ella Fitzgerald have become collectors’ treasures.

With so much talent onstage, it’s an astoundingly clubfooted mess in which Mr. Bregman’s fame as a hip arranger is poorly served. The noisy, colorless singers pound away at dated tunes like “Mississippi Mud” with a gushing artificiality that belies everything Der Bingle stood for. When you hear evergreens from the Crosby repertoire like “Soon” and “Sunday, Monday or Always,” it’s easy to see why he sold 400 million records (topping even Elvis and the Beatles). But the four cast members-none of whom can swing-all sound alike (except Eric Michael Gillett, a former ringmaster for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, whose annoying vibrato sounds alarmingly like an insincere Johnny Mathis), the songs are taken at all the wrong tempos, and there isn’t the sound of a real heartbeat in the joint. It was a big mistake to give the show a “book” the performers couldn’t memorize or remember. They sit on the edge of the stage trying to appear low-key, or roam aimlessly among the tables in the stiff task of trying to act like interviewers as Mr. Bregman reminisces. In his leisurely safari jacket, he’s like a California tourist who forgot to read the New York weather report before he boarded his plane at LAX. The patter is so canned that there’s no chance for spontaneity, and all that effort to sound casual and informative fails. Mr. Bregman is the only one who seems relaxed and conversational. The whole thing needs Der Bingle’s laid-back style, simplicity of phrasing, and professional sense of timing and tempo-qualities these performers lack in abundance. Bing deserves a richer, more sophisticated 100th-birthday party than this. When the cast forms a picnic tableau and Mr. Bregman conducts them in a homespun “Dear Hearts and Gentle People,” it doesn’t bring back Bing: It conjures the boring image of a Fourth of July concert at the Chamber of Commerce in Podunk Falls.

Determined to live up to the FireBird’s new theme as the theater-district crossroads on West 46th Street-“Where Cabaret Meets Broadway”-the room’s dashing, innovative producer, Steve Downey, has lined up some promising future events, including Phillip Officer’s Broadway Brigade with a different guest diva every night, a career retrospective of Julie Wilson’s life, and a rare engagement by the singing, dancing leprechaun Jason Graae. I look forward to all the future triumphs, but the current Bing Crosby revue (through March 1) is, sadly, not one of them. It’s an adequate but unremarkable evening-long, limp and lackadaisical. Better luck next time.