- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 26, 2003

Kurt Russell plays a racist, lawbreaking officer in the police drama "Dark Blue." Other than that, he's someone we can all identify with, Mr. Russell hopes.
"In order to make this movie watchable, you had to say, 'What makes Eldon Perry tick?' … You have to be connected to him as a human being," Mr. Russell says of his "Dark Blue" anti-hero.
The film, which earned mixed notices and $3.75 million in its opening weekend, is a bleak, fictional look at Los Angeles police in the early '90s, set against the nonfiction backdrop of the Rodney King beating and the riots to which it ultimately led.
World-weary Eldon follows any orders issued by his crooked superiors, even if it means using deadly force against the innocent. One righteous cop, played by Ving Rhames, vows to root out the corruption infesting the force, but before he can start the cleansing, the deceitful house of cards built over time by Eldon and his ilk starts to collapse.
Mr. Russell, sporting that familiar mane of thick hair during press interviews for the film, says he struggled with whether to take on the project. He says early versions of the script painted Eldon as so corrupt and menacing that he would have alienated viewers.
Ultimately, the character and the story acquired more subtle moral shading after director Ron Shelton, best known for 1988's "Bull Durham," signed on to the film.
Genre cliches aside, "Dark Blue" represents Mr. Russell's best work in years. The actor insists that the incendiary subject matter doesn't make "Blue" a political manifesto.
"'Silkwood' had a nuclear backdrop to it. It would have been real easy to do the movie in a way that would have made it political," he says, had that film's director, Mike Nichols, not exercised self-restraint.
Mr. Russell said the team behind "Dark Blue" took a similarly evenhanded approach. More than a few police officers are portrayed as immoral, while some rioters are depicted, without editorializing, pillaging their own neighborhoods.
"Dark Blue" screenwriter David Ayer, who also penned 2001's "Training Day," sees Mr. Russell's character as "part of the system."
"He does what he's told," Mr. Ayer says. "Everything he does is in direct relationship to orders he gets from his supervisors."
Only when those same superiors double-cross him does he learn too late that there's no honor among thieves, Mr. Ayer says.
The Los Angeles Police Department refused to cooperate on "Dark Blue," according to Mr. Shelton. Watching the finished product makes it clear why few departments would have embraced a film in which so many are depicted as operating on both sides of the law. The modestly budgeted film $15 million instead drew on retired police officers to nail the finer details of police life.
Mr. Shelton says the lack of cooperation turned out to be a blessing.
"Maybe in the end, it was easier to make it without them," Mr. Shelton says. "What I want to do is portray the world they live in, so we can see how the system and culture create these kinds of people.
"Eldon Perry was not born a bad cop, he became a bad cop," Mr. Shelton continues. "Why did that happen? And what happens when you realize you've become the enemy?"
When it comes to directing sports films, Mr. Shelton has few peers.
"Bull Durham" is considered by many as among the finest sports films of our era, and "Tin Cup" was a delightful and popular comedy with its heart in the right place. His most recent sports saga, "Play It to the Bone" (1999) lacked "Durham's" sizzle.
Making "Blue," and then "Hollywood Homicide," his summer 2003 feature starring Harrison Ford, showed him that cops and athletes have plenty in common.
"I think cops and jocks are very similar in the sense that these are alpha male worlds, and yet none of them are very good with women," he says. "The women have a power over them they never want to submit to."
In "Blue," Eldon all but ignores his wife (Lolita Davidovich) in the film's undercooked romantic subplot.
"Jocks' and cops' personal lives tend to be disasters," he says. "They get such a rush from their jobs they lose themselves in them."
The results often are the same. Alcoholism. Divorce.
"Dark Blue" sat on the shelf for a year, according to Mr. Shelton, while producers wondered how audiences might react to the subject matter.
The script collected dust even longer.
"Nobody wanted to make it," Mr. Shelton says, comparing Hollywood's hesitancy to depict the L.A. riots to how many felt about Vietnam-themed films before 1986's "Platoon."
Mr. Ayer wasn't afraid to incorporate the L.A. riots into the story line, although he is quick to downplay the prominence of the riots in the film.
"Is it the gestalt of the L.A. riots? Absolutely not," he says of the film.
Still, the riots evoke strong memories to this day, particularly for Angelenos.
Mr. Russell wasn't in Los Angeles when the riots broke out, but he vividly remembers their aftermath.
"I had quite a few strong, liberal friends who, at the beginning of the riots were all about the politics of the riots," Mr. Russell says.
"By the end of it, they were literally saying, quietly, 'Do you have any guns?'" he says. "Politics went out the window."

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