Smoking Guns 

Dark Blue: You've seen it once, you've seen it a thousand times.

If you're struck with a case of Déjá vu while watching the formulaic corrupt-cop movie Dark Blue, there's good reason. The film is based on a story by ace crime-fiction writer James Ellroy, the scribe behind L.A. Confidential, and the screenplay was written by David Ayer, who penned Training Day. Those are both better films than Dark Blue, and their echoes reverberate throughout this disappointing exposé on police corruption in the Rodney King-era LAPD.

Like Training Day, Dark Blue is part buddy movie, pairing a morally shady veteran cop, Sgt. Eldon Perry (Kurt Russell), with a handsome, good-hearted but corruptible young partner, Bobby Keough (Scott Speedman). Perry and Keough work under a sinister higher-up named Jack Van Meter (Brendan Gleeson, basically playing James Cromwell's Dudley Smith role from L.A. Confidential), who is engaged in an internal war with ambitious Deputy Chief Arthur Holland (Ving Rhames) for the soul of the LAPD. Perry is a key foot soldier in this conflict, part henchman, part vigilante with a badge, his combination of ambition, muscle, knowingness, and internal conflict making him something of a composite of Ellroy's three cops in L.A. Confidential.

Dark Blue's plot ostensibly centers on a robbery/homicide investigation at a Korean grocery store, a seemingly simple crime that ends up having much broader implications, a plot element similar to the role of the "Nite Owl" massacre from L.A. Confidential.

The film opens with Russell's Perry in a motel room, unshaven, bloodshot, firearms and open alcohol containers littering the room. It's March 3, 1991, in the moments just before the verdict is announced in the trial of the LAPD officers who beat Rodney King. Then the film flashes back five days to show us how Perry got this way.

The King trial marks time in the background of the film, in much the same way that the World Series was used as a background structural device in Abel Ferrara's corrupt-cop flick Bad Lieutenant. Perry sees the trial as a no-win situation, telling his young protÇgÇ that their "brothers" don't deserve to take a fall for merely doing their job but that "this city will burn" if they're acquitted.

Dark Blue is directed by Ron Shelton in his first trip outside a sports milieu since his second film, 1989's disappointing Blaze. Shelton at his best (see Bull Durham) is one of the few contemporary American directors capable of making mainstream comedies with the style, verbal wit, and feel for incident of masters like Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges. Shelton has a subject too -- no, not sports per se but masculinity: specifically, male stubbornness and macho camaraderie, which he consistently portrays with knowing affection yet also critiques from within (most prominently in Tin Cup). Dark Blue fits this subject, but anything Shelton might have to say about the dying breed Russell's macho cop represents gets drowned in noise and clumsily delivered genre formula.

The material here seems too weighty for Shelton's easygoing style, and the feel for conversation that marks his best films is absent since he isn't working from his own script. I haven't read the particular Ellroy story the film is based on, so I'm not sure if "I was raised up to be a gunfighter by a family of gunfighters" or "This city is here because my grandfather and father helped build it, with bullets" comes from Ellroy's pen or Ayer's. But the blustery, Ellroy-esque language that's such a gas on the page and that worked so well in jive form in a period film like L.A. Confidential doesn't hold up here. And the film's climax is a lazily assembled grandstanding speech that is basically a rewrite of a scene Shelton wrote for the William Friedkin-directed basketball dud Blue Chips, a silly theatrical spectacle that comes across as false in a film so intent on creating a gritty, realistic feel.

About the only thing Shelton really has going for him here is Russell, a classic Shelton lead with his rough good looks and regular-guy demeanor. The vastly underappreciated Russell is in fine form here, but he doesn't get much help. Gleeson and Rhames are restrained by underwritten roles, and Speedman is a bland cipher.

The high points of the film, outside Russell's performance, are the riots themselves, depicted in a hazy, disorienting way that burns with a life that (literally) explodes the formulaic machinations that come before. The tension of this impending unrest creeps along underneath the film's personalized main story until erupting in the end. DÇjÖ vu all over again. This is the exact same strategy that was recently deployed in Gangs of New York and with a similarly mixed-results payoff. The riots are the most compelling thing in the movie, but the surface story isn't tied to this tension as well as one would hope, leading one to wish that the film had been more directly about the riots and what led up to them (a subject that I don't think has been dealt with in a feature film before).

To its credit, Dark Blue ties a racist police system to the 1991 riots, directly so in its vision of Russell's wayward gunslinger trying to navigate the smoky, chaotic post-verdict streets of South-Central L.A. In these scenes lie the elements of a fine film waiting to be born, but Shelton and company never realize this promise.

-- Chris Herrington

There is a zesty little Web site out there called RottenTomatoes.com, a compendium of movie reviews from the heights of Roger Ebert to the most inarticulate nerds with their own small, movie-skewering sites. I'm a lurker there, making frequent visits to see what's hot and what's not. The Life of David Gale, it would seem, is not. With a 17 percent approval rating, Gale summons online respect in amounts just below other contemporary critical targets Just Married and The Hot Chick. Ouch! What a shame, since it boasts three of modern moviedom's best and brightest: Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet, and Laura Linney.

David Gale, played deftly by Spacey, is a fallen man. Once a respected philosophy professor and leading anti-death-penalty activist, he now sits on Texas' death row for the rape and murder of colleague Constance Harraway (Linney). The odds are against him: He was previously accused of sexually assaulting a student, and his idiot lawyer has virtually ignored potential evidence and several opportunities to have Gale's sentence reduced. Now, four days before his execution, he has summoned ace magazine reporter Bitsey Bloom (Winslet) to chronicle his life story and his last, philosophical thoughts as he approaches his end. Bloom gradually comes to believe that Gale is innocent, and when a missing videotape of Harraway's death appears in her hotel room, she is galvanized to sort through the mire of injustice, red tape, and local rubes to discover the truth before it is too late.

I enjoy a good, preachy, political melodrama a great deal. Boasting a thick skull, I enjoy a good whack over the head from time to time by extremist, liberal-minded cinematic politicos with fierce, fight-the-man propaganda films. The recent Bowling for Columbine springs to mind as such a film, as does JFK, The China Syndrome, Philadelphia -- all as subtle as sledgehammers in getting their points across: gun control and the validation of Kennedy conspiracy theorists, etc. These are movies that not only make you think but tell you what to think. And you love or hate the film based on your ability to empathize with its characters and agree on its social points. These are artful films, powerfully written and superbly acted and directed. Their messages are carefully and successfully delivered amid superlative production values. Not so here.

The Life of David Gale is obviously against the death penalty. We know this because everyone in the film makes powerful statements against it except the inarticulate, Bible-wielding, redneck, former frat-boy Texas governor. There's also Bitsey's 11th-hour symbolic jaunt through a cemetery on her way to deliver crucial evidence to the police -- before it's too late. There's more symbolism to be found -- Hallmark card-quality heavens, Gale posed crucifixion-style as he lies pensively in the grass looking skyward. There is no subtlety here. The Life of David Gale mistakenly unfolds as a melodrama instead of a political potboiler or conventional thriller. Consequently, any potentially interesting or provocative points are wasted on preachy diatribes or emotional histrionics -- not good, old-fashioned grandstanding. Winslet, usually quite good, is wasted on a part that should have gone to an older actress -- a Cate Blanchett or a Jodie Foster. It is not easy to buy her as a formidable journalist. And what kind of name is Bitsey Bloom, anyway? Fortunately, Spacey anchors the film with gravity and down-sized pathos, though he has the unenviable task of making believable a minutes-long drunken rant about Socrates. Regardless, the movie's best scenes are between him and Linney, who has a secret of her own that eventually serves as the moral compass by which the film's consequences are articulated.

Despite good acting and handsome cinematography, the obvious and hammy Life of David Gale misses narrowly what Gale himself so desperately seeks from Bitsey and from us: redemption.

-- Bo List

Produced by Ivan Reitman, who helped create godfathers of the form like Stripes and Animal House, and directed by Todd Phillips, who tried to join the pantheon with the horny gross-out flick Road Trip, Old School is a promising attempt at one of those reckless, socially irredeemable, "National Lampoon" comedies.

It's promising because it has a surefire premise (a group of thirtysomething friends reject their respectable adult lives and start a fraternity) and a great cast (Luke Wilson as straight man, Will Ferrell as wild man, and Vince Vaughn as middleman are perfect for their roles). As a film fan who generally prefers a good dumb comedy (most recently, Super Troopers or, my personal classic of the form, Office Space) to middlebrow Oscar bait, I had high hopes. But Old School isn't quite lunatic or anarchic enough for its own good. The film is very conscious of the castration anxiety and ex-frat-boy nostalgia of its domesticated, regular-guy audience, so it takes care to balance its glimpse of the wild side with a restoration of domesticated adulthood, teaching its audience that you can find fulfillment in the nuclear family by courting the good girl you had a crush on in high school and by making those weekend trips to Home Depot and Bed, Bath, & Beyond with wifey. It tells the audience that it's okay to trade in beer bongs and hot rods for Dockers and minivans.

Is this all true? Of course it is. But we don't come to a movie like Old School to reaffirm our conventional life choices. (At least I don't.) We come to a movie like Old School to see a butt-naked Ferrell interrupt a Snoop Dogg performance at an off-campus house party with a plea to go "streaking across the quad." We come to a movie like Old School to see an 89-year-old pledge named "Blue" engage in intergenerational KY Jelly wrestling with a couple of co-eds and to hear Vaughn give a rousing speech to the trio's motley group of fraternity pledges: "We will give nothing back to the academic community and do nothing for community service, that I can assure you." In other words, we come for the glimpses of anarchy, not the reassurances of normalcy.

But at least we've got that cast to get us through the rough patches. Wilson, who's had difficulty getting screen time in interesting movies outside those done by his brother Owen and Wes Anderson (particularly, Bottle Rocket and The Royal Tenenbaums), plays a real-estate lawyer who comes home early from a convention only to find his live-in girlfriend (Juliette Lewis in a very small role -- guess Scientology hasn't done the trick for her career) engaged in some serious hanky-panky with several creepy "Internet friends." Disillusioned and shell-shocked, he moves out, renting a house adjacent to the campus of the unnamed university where presumably he and his buddies matriculated. The house rekindles a bit of nostalgia in Vaughn's Speaker City millionaire, a wife-and-two-kids soccer dad who sees the house as an avenue to "getting a lot of ass -- I mean boy-band ass," though he may just see it as an opportunity to sell high-end stereo equipment to the college kids. Along for the ride is Ferrell, a just-married regular Joe whose newlywed wife cautions him not to let old alter-ego "Frank the Tank" back out again.

These guys keep the film going. Ferrell looks the role of good suburban husband, which only makes his over-the-top commitment to the bacchanal life of "Frank the Tank" all the funnier. Vaughn, who seems more at home here than in anything since Swingers, is all paradox, playing the role with what amounts to deadpan intensity and achingly sincere insincerity. He gets great mileage out of having a kid (and having the kid cover his ears -- "Earmuffs!" -- on those frequent occasions when he's about to say something hopelessly crude), and to see him aping Britney Spears choreography during a fraternity-testing show of "school spirit" or flashing an appreciative glance at Ferrell's interpretative gymnastics routine are moments of dumb-comedy glory. And Wilson, relegated to the straight-man role, is a regular guy even not-so-regular guys wouldn't mind hanging out with, which is about what you could say for the movie itself. -- CH

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