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Sin and Sincerity

Two new films tackle LAPD-style crime and Texas-style punishment.


On the surface, Ron Shelton's Dark Blue seems to be a fairly routine bad-cop movie with a veteran B-lister (Kurt Russell) in the lead. But the film is adapted from a story by James Ellroy, the author of such stylish and brutal crime novels as L.A. Confidential, The Black Dahlia, American Tabloid and the tortured memoir, My Dark Places.

Ellroy, whose own mother was raped and murdered in a case that captured Los Angeles headlines in 1958, made his reputation chronicling the dick-swinging culture of the Los Angeles police department, circa the 1940s and '50s. His novels are filled with violent cops and affectionate details of a jazzy, pre-television popular culture, so much so that critics began to accuse him of harboring unseemly nostalgia for the era's racial attitudes as well.

Ellroy does indeed seem to enjoy making literary music out of obsolete racial and sexual epithets, but with his story for Dark Blue, he brings his sensibility to the late 20th century. Shaking off his Raymond Chandlerisms, Ellroy dramatizes the great reckoning that confronted the swaggering cops of the LAPD when a mob of blue-clad goons were witnessed beating a black motorist senseless.

The film opens during the trial of the four officers who were eventually prosecuted for the Rodney King assault. News updates are never far from the film's background, but as the jury deliberates, some everyday corrupt business is being conducted at the LAPD. Sgt. Elden Perry (Russell) and his rookie partner Bobby (Scott Speedman) are introduced while they are awaiting the result of a board inquiry into a suspicious shooting death.

Thanks to the intervention of Jack Van Meter (Brendan Gleeson), who is Bobby's uncle, their cooked-up story passes muster, save for one dissenter: The department's top ranking African American who aspires to become chief. As played by the righteous Ving Rhames, Asst. Chief Holland is the good guy rival to Gleeson's Van Meter, who embodies just about every worst quality of the Los Angeles police force.

What makes this film better than other bad-cop movies--such as the recent, soporific Narc--is the casually violent cynicism of the characters. There are no illusions to be lost here in the City of Angels: The cops are part of a racket in which catching criminals is less important than staying afloat in the department's Darwinian political network.

The specter of the impending riots hangs over the film as we meet the characters. The young, relatively uncorrupted Bobby has a fling with an African-American cop (Michael Michele) in which they only use first names, suspecting (correctly) that knowing anything more about each other will disrupt their fun. Meanwhile, Russell's Perry has so thoroughly embraced the murderous ethos of his department that he's willing to trade murders with other officers, as a way of exchanging favors. His corruption has paid off, for he is about to be promoted. Despite his career trajectory, things aren't going well at home, as revealed by Perry's unhappy wife, Lolita Davidovich, who brings conviction to an otherwise standard-issue police widow role.

Director Shelton, best known for sports movies like Bull Durham and White Men Can't Jump, does a creative and subtle job imagining the historical moment (even if it means trotting out the shoe-sized cell phones of the era). Without being excessively obvious or manipulative, Shelton keeps an air of dread hanging over the film. As Perry and Bobby sink deeper into mayhem, news keeps seeping from televisions and radios about the Rodney King jury's ongoing deliberations.

The inevitable "not guilty" verdict comes down late in the film, and Dark Blue ends with a well-staged action scene that merges into the larger conflagration that engulfs South Central. In art as in life, the cops can't be found as the rioting begins. They're so busy managing their own corrupt affairs that they scarcely notice or care that their city is about to blow.

Charles Randolph, the screenwriter of The Life of David Gale, used to smuggle Bibles into Cold War Eastern Europe. Now, he claims that he's trying to smuggle progressive messages into Hollywood movies. "I want three hours of your life," he told The New York Times recently, "The two hours when you watch it, and the hour you discuss it afterward."

If this movie actually succeeds in stimulating an hour of discussion, the subject will likely not be the death penalty, as Randolph intends, but rather the film's glaring ineptitude and laughable plotting.

The Life of David Gale concerns the last few days on earth of a prominent anti-death penalty activist who is now on death row himself. This is Professor Gale (Kevin Spacey), who once had a day job teaching philosophy at the University of Texas in Austin.

As the film opens, Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet), a tough-talking magazine reporter from New York, is summoned to Huntsville, Texas, for an exclusive interview with Gale, who is sentenced to die for the rape and murder of Constance (Laura Linney), his partner in death penalty activism.

The exclusive interview unfolds over three days and the film likewise takes shape in predictable fashion, with each day occasioning a long flashback into Gale's life. Although this flick is intended as a thriller, there are few surprises as the film doles out the details of Gale's fall from grace: Alcoholism, a fling with a student, a rape charge, divorce and loss of visitation rights with his son.

Kevin Spacey, as always, has a magnificent way of delivering a line. But here as elsewhere, his verbal facility betrays a fundamental lack of sincerity--he's such a good con man that he can't help flaunting it. That's why his greatest and most definitive role remains that of Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects. In David Gale, Spacey's slipperiness in his scenes with Winslet's Bitsey proves fatal to what little suspense the film has to offer.

The story is relentlessly implausible and director Alan Parker (Angela's Ashes, Mississippi Burning) resorts to the cheapest scare devices to keep our interest. A sinister man tails Bitsey in his pickup. (Cue the creepy music.) Her car has a penchant for going on the fritz, in the middle of nowhere. (Ditto.) A mysterious videotape is left in her motel room, dangling from a noose. (And ditto.)

None of these tricks amount to anything and the film's ta-da ending can be spotted about an hour and a half in advance.

The film does have some fun imagining the University of Texas as a haven for hedonistic academics: Poolside parties, freestylin' limerick contests and drunken sex in the bathrooms. Of course, the real purpose of setting the film in Texas is because of the state's bloodthirsty reputation. "There are more prisons here than Starbucks," Bitsey Bloom observes in one of the film's few genuinely acidic lines.

Although the film doesn't mention that George W. Bush presided over 144 state-sanctioned snuffings during his six years as governor, it does offer an entirely fictitious Bible-thumping yahoo chief executive that sneers at the "fuzzy liberal thinking" of David Gale and his progressive cohorts. (Next month, Texas will perform its 300th execution since the death penalty was reinstated in 1982. Eight convicts have been executed so far in 2003.)

Unfortunately, the film doesn't have a firm perspective on the death penalty issue. Although some abolitionist rhetoric is used, death penalty opponents are presented as shrill, sexually frustrated desperadoes who maintain an office in some dusty nowheresville. Most ludicrously, these zealots keep pictures of death row inmates on the wall--when one of them is executed, his or her photo gets crossed out with a fat red marker.

In the end, The Life of David Gale does as little credit to opponents of the death penalty as the Unabomber did to critics of global capitalism and technophilia. Which is to say, almost none at all. EndBlock

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