> Volume 5 > Number 09

Volume 5, Number 09

This Week's Reviews:  Dark Blue.

This Week's Omissions:  Cradle 2 the Grave.

Repertory Review:  Limbo.

Ron Shelton

Kurt Russell
Scott Speedman
Ving Rhames
Michael Michele
Brendan Gleeson
Dash Mihok
Lolita Davidovich

Release: 21 Feb. 03

Dark Blue


Dark Blue comes out at an interesting time: as it attempts to make sense of a police squad known for years as the schoolyard bully, the entire nation has to take accusations of being a similar aggressor. Time can only tell if the American strikes on Iraq will be seen as truly preemptive or destructive. Such is not the case with the Los Angeles Police Department in the 1990s, which, like America in the face of its Western allies, was looked down upon by the rest of the nation for its extensive use of force.

Nothing in Dark Blue calls for the direct implications of a possible GWII but the hints of a hegemonic determination to police the peons does help to bring proper parallels. Ron Shelton doesn't come out and attack George W. Bush with the film, but does attack the mindset. Like Bush, the police officers in Dark Blue seem to be going by a creed that calls for the barring of any immoral or illegal attack against themselves by any means necessary, including immoral and illegal attacks. The officers of the LAPD were sworn to serve the people by stopping the criminals who prey on them; Bush was sworn to serve the people of the nation by creating a stable and secure government without the fear of attack by outsiders. Both see violence as the only way to stop violence. The LAPD was proven too heady -- the jury is still out on Bush.

Set in the days before the Los Angeles riots in April 1992, Dark Blue deals with the way the LAPD had turned to violence as the only form of crime prevention. As four white officers awaited their fate for a brutal attack on Rodney King, the city prepared for armageddon: the general feeling was that racial tension was at an unstable height, and that in reaction to a 'not guilty' verdict, as one character puts it, "the city would burn."

It did, not as much because the police were impotent to the violent looting and vandalism going around the city, but because the neighborhoods where most of the riots occurred were out of their interests. If the black population was going to destroy the black part of the city, why should the cops working mainly for the white population risk their own lives by getting involved? At this point, the LAPD was still blind to the corruption within their own policies.

When Ron Shelton attempts to figure out the reasoning behind this police state mindset, Dark Blue is a striking portrayal of brutality and well meaning, of destruction under the shield of law enforcement. Dark Blue has so many interesting scenarios to develop, that its prospects of becoming a worthy addendum to Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential excites anyone interested in the development of the "the greatest police force in America."

Thus it is unsettling when the film devolves into clichés and formulas. While the comparison of a police officer's first kill to the first pinch of Henry Hill in GoodFellas is intriguing, the way Shelton and screenwriter David Ayer try to achieve some machismo chest thumping to the story becomes tedious. When the story deals more directly with the corruption passed down along generations of family members (some of whom would have been on the force during L.A. Confidential's setting), Dark Blue is surprisingly devoid of these standards of police dramas. Inflicting us with the melodrama of third generation bad-cop Eldon Perry (Russell, in one of his finest performances) and his unnoticed wife (Davidovich) or the forced epiphany of young good-cop Bobby Keough (Speedman) breaks the tension that Sheldon has successfully created.

Known mainly as a director of sports films like Play It to the Bone, Tin Cup, and Bull Durham, Sheldon's abilities as a filmmaker have too often been underestimated. At his best, he can capture a masculine pressure to succeed, whether it is through athletics or genealogy. While none of his films ever go as far as they should in this journey into the male pretense, the fact that Sheldon continues to form his view of this should be seen as some modest achievement. Dark Blue, his best film yet, captures more of this than any of his previous films. His setup is near perfect, and Dark Blue could have been one of the year's best films. Given a little time to further perfect his art, Sheldon could be my nominee to direct a film on George W. Bush.

©2003, David Perry,, 28 February 2003

John Sayles

David Strathairn
Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio
Vanessa Martinez
Kris Kristofferson

Release: 4 June 99



[NOTE: Since this is more an analysis than a review of Limbo, major plot points including the end are given away.  It is recommended that it only be read after watching the film.]

"O! what a sympathy of woe is this; / As far from help as limbo is from bliss."
                        -William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus

The most predictable part of John Sayles' oeuvre is that all of his films share a common independence from convention. However, the cohesion ends there: Sayles has rarely made a film that follows the same characters, settings, and stories that he has used in the past. Taking his early work as a writer, he has made cinema into an experiment in storytelling. Even when covering stories that seem standard, his resolute autonomy allows him to quiz the audience with their own predictions of a standard formula.

Sayles has followed revolutionaries in Columbia (Men with Guns), aliens in New York (The Brother from Another Planet), miners in West Virginia (Matewan), baseball players in Chicago (Eight Men Out), and lawmen in Texas (Lone Star). Each of his films work with the personalities and psychology (Sayles studied psychology in college) without allowing them to become comfortably numb, over-generalized creations of little humanism. They all look at storytelling from an intellectualized view -- the idea of filmic fiction and its relationship to reality. All of this seems to be a preamble to Sayles' Limbo, which questions even the most remedial ideas of storytelling, alternately controlling multiple stories and their interaction, consequence, and conclusion.

At a skeletal level, the film is divided into two nearly separate stories. First the audience is introduced to the blooming relationship between Joe Gastineau (Strathairn) and Donna De Angelo (Mastrantonio) as Sayles looks at the corporate attack on Alaska and its industrially communal people. They are introduced as figures looking for something to do after their lives have been halted by the collapse of a fish canning plant, the end of a short-term love affair, and the decay of dreams.

Joe Gastineau is shown as the heart of these dispirited people, a man who has seen all the high expectations of youth destroyed by many chance occurrences. Meanwhile, Sayles brings in a collection of interesting supporting players: the codger trying to get his boat back, the two lesbians trying to save face in the town, and the developers intent on turning Juneau into Arctic Disney World.

The second act is more of a Swiss Family Robinson look at feral survival. By giving the audience the rich characters of the first half, he allows them to miss these characters while watching Joe, Donna, and her daughter Noelle (Martinez) in the solitary confinement of the Alaska wilderness. This exemplifies the abandon that these characters feel: not only are they left in an uncultivated part of the wild with little chance of survival, but they are also without ever knowing what their friends (and enemies) are doing. The audience may wonder what's going on with the boat episode, but they are just as in the dark as the people on the screen. Sayles seems to be asking them to question their own changes in life -- how many times have they known people and their problems but a move has left these once paramount issues in the distant and forgotten past?

Sayles also looks at single stories as a chance to remove the audience from the storytelling techniques that are most expected. As the denizens of a small bar talk, their stories are mixed and mingled -- their points are never really told, but understood. The people of the bar have heard all these tall tales before but listen like it's the first time -- the audience, on the other hand, new to the colloquial mythology of the land, must attempt to make sense of the competing stories.

Noelle serves as the film's closest realization of a Sayles proxy. She establishes the fabrication of the Sayles world by fabricating her own story. Telling the tale of another family trying to survive, she convinces Joe, Donna, and the film audience of its reality. When it is discovered to be a work of her imagination, the ramifications are clear: as people become involved in a story, they remain at the whim of the storyteller.

Of course, the film's greatest attack on storytelling customs comes in the film's ending, or lack thereof. By establishing all the emotions of the characters, Sayles draws the audience into an intense interest in the story. But the lack of an ending works as a culmination of the film's narrative: every moment of the film has been built around a lack of fate. Nothing seems preordained or expected; instead, the film travels through its tale without knowledge of the future.

There is a constant state of limbo hanging over everyone, waiting fearfully for the next step. Just as Joe and Donna embarrassedly try to forge a relationship, as the people of Juneau wonder about a corporate takeover, and as the three marooned stand awaiting their death or salvation, the movie works as a reminder that nothing is exact, nothing is known beyond the present moment. A conclusive ending would be a lie, because there are none in reality.

©2003, David Perry,, 28 February 2003

Reviews by:
David Perry