Dark Blue, according to its credits, is based upon a story by Los Angeles-born author James Ellroy, who pens grisly and guilt-ridden pulp-noir haiku that spreads across hundreds of pages. Its screenplay was penned by cop-caper fetishist David Ayer, and director Ron Shelton insists he rewrote both men's words with their approval. But you do not need the credits to inform you of what's clear to anyone who read Ellroy's L.A. Confidential (or saw Curtis Hanson's 1997 film version) or viewed Ayer's Training Day. Dark Blue, set during the hours before the Simi Valley jury turns in its verdict in the Rodney King beating trial in the spring of 1992, plays like a mishmash of its antecedents -- a remix, with a city that's being burned and looted providing the variant beat. If the film has a point, it's a simple and obvious one: The more things change, the more they stay the goddamned same. No, really?
Shelton could be forgiven for his decision to revisit L.A.'s mean streets, had Dark Blue brought something new to its police ball. Shelton wants to make the setting mean something; he wants to make a statement about race and politics in a corrupt department protecting and serving a decaying city. But in the end, he uses the King riots as window dressing, not commentary or context: The city burns, but nothing's been learned, nothing's been gained.
Early on, it does suck you in and spit you out, but that has less to do with Shelton's filmmaking than his use of the footage of officers Timothy Wind, Theodore Briseno, Laurence Powell, and Sergeant Stacey Koon beating King in March 1991. From there, the director leaps forward a year later to scenes of disheveled Sergeant Eldon Perry Jr. (Kurt Russell), the swaggering head of LAPD's Special Investigations Squad, swigging back Crown Royal in a seedy motel room while waiting for the jury's verdict. Then we jump back five days earlier: Two thugs sit in a car arguing over the verdict; they're about to swipe an Asian grocer's safe and gun down four innocents in the process.
It's into this firecracker atmosphere that Shelton begins recounting an achingly familiar tale. As it turns out, Perry is boozing it up in the motel room not because he's concerned about the impending conflagration, but because he's gotten himself into a real mess, the result of years of doing the dirty work of crooked chief Jack Van Meter (Brendan Gleeson). Perry, a loud and proud racist and homophobe, has been carrying Van Meter's water for too long, and now he's about to drown in it. He doesn't own up to his wretched past -- killing the wrong man, say, to clear up the two thugs' quadruple homicide at Van Meter's behest -- till it gets him into trouble. He has no conscience, just an ass to cover.
We have heard this song before, know it by heart, sadly, as films still can't keep pace with real-life headlines about fake drug busts and a shady LAPD, and still filmmakers can't resist its rhythms. All that's missing here is a voice-over announcing: "Tonight, on a very special episode of The Shield."