When Kurt Russell stepped into the detective’s uniform for “Dark Blue,” he wasn’t just accepting another movie role. He was taking a stand. He was destroying an image he’d spent two decades building, and turning his back on the American hero audiences had come to recognize at the sight of him.
Becoming a villain sounds kind of heroic, doesn’t it?
“Dark Blue” is one of those low-budget cop dramas you don’t see made at studios anymore. At a reported $15 million, Ron Shelton’s feature couldn’t even make back its budget. First released at an Italian film festival in mid-December 2002, it was dumped in the U.S. during February 2003 for a cumulative worldwide haul of just over $12 million.
Big surprise. Opening out of awards season, the movie chronicled events leading up and through the Los Angeles riots in 1992, depicting a racially divided city “protected” by corrupt cops — like Russell’s character, Eldon Perry. The film opens with video of the Rodney King beating; an image not unfamiliar to audiences but certainly one America isn’t eager to revisit 10 years later. From there, we’re wrapped up in a police corruption scandal involving Perry, his young partner Bobby Keough (Scott Speedman), and an experienced older officer, Jack Van Meter (Brendan Gleeson).
Perry has operated as Van Meter’s bone-crusher for years, but Keough isn’t comfortable with his brute tactics. When the film starts, it’s Keough on trial with the police commission over a questionable on duty shooting, but we soon find out Perry was the one who pulled the trigger. Not only is Perry ready and willing to lie for what he deems the right reasons, but he risks his partner’s career, freedom, and life over the course of the film. He’s also a casual racist, heavy drinker, and an absent husband.
In other words, he’s a bad dude. And Kurt Russell doesn’t play bad dudes.
Imagine being a 16-year-old kid sitting in the movie theater next to your dad, staring up at the silver screen you’d seen Russell magically appear upon your whole life. Every time, he was there to do the right thing. Seeing him on that screen meant things were going to be OK. Whether he was the Cash to Sylvester Stallone’s Tango, a silly Captain steering a family to safety, a cowboy trying to protect his town, a Soldier fighting to save a child, or even an Elvis impersonator on the run from another Elvis impersonator who was out to kill him and his girlfriend, Courtney Cox — Kurt Russell was always the good guy.
Until “Dark Blue.” Russell was asking audiences not only to reframe their perspective of him, as an actor, but to see beyond the false fronts of American heroism. Police, in movies and in life, had been an accepted symbol of integrity, courage, and protection. They were the real-life heroes blown up to larger-than-life proportions on the big screen.
But the L.A. riots changed that. As documented in years of investigative research — and a handful of documentaries recently released to coincide with the riots’ 25th anniversary — police corruption ran rampant in Los Angeles throughout the ’80s and ’90s. It was a problem we didn’t want to face until we had to, and even then it was put off, pushed away, and repressed.
Today, the sins of the past and the present are collectively altering our perception of heroes. The unrest in Ferguson has led to an increased focus on police brutality, and the American people are not just facing reality, but seeking out injustice at every turn.
Russell made the few who saw “Dark Blue” face that in a powerfully layered fashion. Whether you were a teenager or full-grown adult, witnessing an iconic hero of the silver screen become the villain was a forceful, unsettling, and unforgettable experience because of the symbolism at play. Russell didn’t just subvert our expectations about his talent, but how we identify heroes out in the world. They may look like a hero — like Kurt Russell — but that doesn’t make them Gabriel Cash.
To take on the role for a greater purpose than vanity — a juicy part or to subvert expectations — speaks to a daring choice deserving of acknowledgement. Russell has returned to his hero roots since “Dark Blue,” accepting parts as a superhero in (the excellent) “Sky High” and “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” as Ego. But his most heroic move came 15 years before we were ready for it. That’s not to say “Dark Blue” would be a blockbuster in 2017, nor that its relevance was dampened by premiering closer to its depicted era. Audiences needed to more closely examine their heroes then, just as they do now. Russell just took the first step, like heroes do.