Dark Blue

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“Dark Blue” is set in the days before the Rodney King riots of 1992, when Los Angeles was on pins and needles, basically planning to riot if the verdict came back not guilty.

It was a tense time, and “Dark Blue” hypothesizes ways of making it even more stressful, adding more bad cops than there possibly could have been. It’s a fictionalized account, but it is straight-faced in suggesting the degree to which racism and corruption permeated the LAPD.

Ignore the fast and loose treatment of the facts, and you’ve got a fine, darkly dramatic thriller. Kurt Russell — overlooked as a quality actor — plays Eldon Perry, a quintessential Cop Who Doesn’t Play By The Rules who believes that if “at the end of the day, the bullets were in the bad guys,” then it doesn’t matter which laws were broken or what lies were told in the process.

He’s training Bobby Keogh (Scott Speedman), who looks like a younger version of himself, bringing him up in the ways of ends-justify-the-meansism. As the film begins, Eldon has saved Bobby from embarrassment by letting people believe he shot a fleeing suspect, when in fact Eldon shot him after Bobby dropped his gun. No harm in that lie, right?

The film brings out several sticky relationships between people, each demonstrating that no one is as he appears, and seemingly no one is without secrets. Bobby has a purely sexual relationship with a lady cop (Michael Michele), Eldon’s superior officer Van Meter (Brendan Gleeson) is even more racist than Eldon is — even Deputy Chief Holland (Ving Rhames), morally imposing and righteous, has troublesome skeletons in his closet.

Eldon and Bobby are investigating a case where four people were shot in cold blood in a convenience store robbery that, surprise surprise, was about more than simple thievery. And while it’s all going on, the Rodney King jury is out deliberating.

The story is by James Ellroy, who wrote the novel on which “L.A. Confidential” is based. The screenplay is by David Ayer, who also wrote “Training Day.” He has not moved very from from it to write “Dark Blue,” but his writing is strong. Witness the early scene in which the convenience store killers, one white and one black, discuss the repercussions of the King trial’s potential outcomes. It’s a curious, catchy blend of street profanity and ethical philosophies, reminding us that some issues are far-reaching enough to influence EVERYONE’S conversation.

Kurt Russell’s performance is noteworthy in that he creates a character whose type is so similar to so many others, yet it seems fresh. He was taught by his late father, whom he worships; he has no motives beyond wanting bad guys to be caught (or, if necessary, killed). When he delivers the obligatory Crazy Man speech — where the head lunatic lays out in simple terms what’s going on and why — you forget that so many movies, up through Al Pacino in “The Recruit” a few weeks ago, have had identical speeches already.

Director Ron Shelton (“Bull Durham,” “White Men Can’t Jump”) displays a love for L.A. and a mastery of his craft. The riot scenes are particularly harrowing.

In the end, as Russell’s dark blue eyes peer out at the city he loves, a city that is now burning, I wonder if the conclusion may be a cop-out. Surely Eldon Perry belongs in hell, and hell is what L.A. has become — but does he somehow deserve more than what the movie gives him? Discuss.

B+ (1 hr., 56 min.; R, abundant harsh profanity, some brief sexuality, brief nudity, some very strong violence.)

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