The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents September 2009 Return to Table of Contents
The Baader Meinhof Complex
Presidents Desk
Production Slate
CAS Part 2
ASC Close-Up
DVD Playback
Dark Blue
Mad Men
Dark Blue (2003)
Blu-ray Edition
2.35:1 (High Definition 1080p)
Dolby Digital 5.1
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, $24.99

It was probably inevitable novelist James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential, The Black Dahlia) would write about the Rodney King verdict and ensuing riots, given his obsession with chronicling the relationship among race, class and power as it has defined Los Angeles since the 1940s. When Ellroy did address the subject, it was in the form of a feature-film treatment, The Plague Season; the problem was this ostensible blueprint was already more than 100 pages, with no dialogue. Screenwriter David Ayer (Training Day) was brought in to condense and consolidate Ellroy’s ideas, ultimately collaborating with director Ron Shelton (Bull Durham, Tin Cup) to bring the story to the screen as Dark Blue. It is no surprise the end result was a riveting, realistic crime melodrama, given that Ellroy, Ayer and Shelton all share a devotion to authenticity and an ear for the way male subcultures (whether cops or athletes) speak and behave.     

Dark Blue tells the story of Eldon Perry (Kurt Russell), a Los Angeles Police Department detective whose moral compass has lost its bearings over time; though his intentions are pure, his methods (which include planting evidence and providing false testimony) are highly questionable. In the days leading up to and including the King verdict, Perry works a case with his young partner, Bobby Keough (Scott Speedman), and uncovers corruption in his department he cannot justify — a discovery that forces him to ponder his own illegal acts and what they have cost him in terms of his relationships and his soul. Shelton juxtaposes Perry’s personal crisis against the larger societal issues raised by the L.A. riots, examining the city’s ethnic and economic divisions and the controversial methods of its police department. The director has long professed admiration for both Sam Peckinpah and Jean Renoir, and Dark Blue is a surprisingly effective merging of those two influences — a violent but empathetic modern-day Western in which everyone has his reasons.   

Barry Peterson’s cinematography perfectly captures the script’s many complexities and dichotomies. His use of the Super-35 format creates a slight increase in grain that emphasizes the locations’ gritty urban reality, yet also allows for widescreen framing that generates a sort of visual elegance in even the ugliest, poverty-stricken locales. In this film as well as White Men Can’t Jump and Hollywood Homicide (a comic companion piece to Dark Blue, also photographed by Peterson), Shelton showcases L.A. neighborhoods that have not been over-utilized in other movies and on television; indeed, he undertakes an almost anthropological study of the city’s working class, a mission in which Peterson is an ideal partner. The saturated colors that comprise Peterson’s palette are both vibrant and unforgiving, as are his compositions, in which the ’scope-aspect ratio is put to great use placing the characters in the context of their environment. That environment is often hot and oppressive, and Peterson’s lighting and color scheme convey the heat in a manner that recalls Body Heat and Do the Right Thing without being imitative of either.      

The new Blu-ray transfer of Dark Blue is the perfect way to appreciate Peterson’s achievement as the increased resolution of the format reveals a multitude of details in the mise-en-scène. This is a movie in which things are always going on in the background (adding to the overall sense Los Angeles is as much a character as the cops and crooks who inhabit it), and there is a clarity in the imagery here that was not as prevalent in the standard-definition edition of the film. The sound mix is excellent as well, with great use of the surround channels to evoke an urban cacophony complemented by jazz musician Terence Blanchard’s dynamic score.

The Blu-ray edition of Dark Blue comes with a second disc that features a standard-definition version of the movie along with all of the extra features available on the original 2003 DVD release. Shelton contributes an amiable commentary track in which he reflects on the social, moral and psychological aspects of the film as well as the realities of shooting a modestly budgeted action film on the streets of Los Angeles. Shelton and his collaborators (including Peterson) elaborate on these ideas in “Internal Affairs,” a half-hour documentary split into three parts. “Code Blue” traces the evolution of the writing and casting processes, as well as the logistics of location shooting and action choreography. “By the Book” focuses on production design, art direction and costuming; “Necessary Force” provides a look at the real-life practices of LAPD detectives, courtesy of technical advisor Robert Souza. A gallery of production and publicity stills and a theatrical trailer complete the supplement package.

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