Somewhere between the rising popularity of dialogue from the school of David Mamet and the falling popularity of enemies from the school of Tom Clancy, moral confidence has gone out of fashion in movies about good versus evil. The color of the moment is a muted gray, accessorized by colorful plot reversals. It's a chic storytelling style appropriate for weightless games of cat and mouse -- ''Memento,'' ''Narc,'' ''The Recruit,'' that kind of fancy shadowboxing; it's also a trend of mealy artistic conservatism tricked out as cool narrative cleverness.
So prepared are we, indeed, to go nowhere and care about nothing that the opening moments of the terrific corrupt-cop drama Dark Blue are disorienting and actually shocking: We're watching television somewhere, the title card says it's 1991, and the TV is broadcasting very real footage from the now-famous amateur videotape that caught white members of the Los Angeles Police Department beating up a black man, Rodney King. When the movie opens, the country is awaiting a verdict in the trial of those officers -- a verdict we know will soon plunge L.A. into racial crisis -- but then the scene cuts off. A title explains ''Five Days Earlier.''
And there's Kurt Russell in some cheap L.A. motel room, looking distraught, surrounded by weapons he's apparently about to use; he's spread them around the way desperate characters in cheap motels tend to strew their stuff before a movie's last reel. And then the scene cuts again, and we're back even further, caught up in an average, everyday fictional LAPD world of rule-bending, corner-cutting, evidence-planting, strong-arming, kickback-taking, race-baiting, and favor-trading. We're in a legendarily compromised Los Angeles; we're also in the grip of a story by James Ellroy (the ur-Angeleno out of whose twisty mind sprang ''L.A. Confidential'') and a screenplay by ''Training Day'''s David Ayer, directed by Ron Shelton with all the acuity and snap of his best sports films -- ''Bull Durham,'' ''White Men Can't Jump.''
And we begin to realize, with growing excitement and gratitude, that ''Dark Blue'' takes a moral stand. It's lively but serious. It makes connections between movie-size fictional LAPD misadventure (that's its ''Training Day'' DNA) and Rodney King-size reality. It's about something bigger than itself, and everything -- performance, photography, a heart-of-L.A. score by Terence Blanchard -- rises to meet higher expectations.
Russell plays Eldon Perry -- cop and son of a cop -- who works in the LAPD's elite Special Investigations Squad, going after particularly hardcore alleged scum by the same ''Training Day'' code of scrapped ethics that won Denzel Washington an Oscar. Eldon's young, callow partner, Bobby Keough (''Felicity'''s Scott Speedman, for the girls) is, in turn, a variant of the Ethan Hawke role, dismayed by the lessons in corruption and racism he's learning from his would-be mentor but too eager to fit in to make trouble -- at first.
Eldon is just one player in a department rooted in casual rottenness. Eldon's SIS boss Jack Van Meter (a powerful Brendan Gleeson, whose performance is a marvel of cunning, menace, and paternalism) is thick in the dirt; the assistant police chief (Ving Rhames), hungry to become the city's first black head of the force, has his own career path to consider; and an otherwise unentangled cop on an undercover mission (Michael Michele) discovers that the cop she's been sleeping with is the very cop she's been assigned to investigate. And he happens to be Bobby.
Because it's a corrupt-cop film after all, ''Dark Blue'' is spotted with only-in-the-movies coincidences like these. (Van Meter is also Bobby's uncle, binding the kid to the family of men in blue in more ways than one.) I tend to lose heart when characters such as Eldon's lonely, drink-hugging wife (played by Shelton's wife, Lolita Davidovich) make pithy observations like ''You care more about the people you hate.'' And Eldon indulges in a climactic bout of speechifying better suited to a Pacino or Nicholson project.
But I absorb these and a score of other movie tropes for the pleasure of watching Russell exhale and increase his gravity in middle age. I marvel at how Gleeson makes his Van Meter a whole history of easy corruption packed into one hearty, influential backroom power broker. What lingers are not the one-liners of two-bit perp characters but the focused passions of Rhames as a man of ambition (his marriage, like Eldon's, is ravaged by the job) whose rage while navigating a dark blue sea of institutional racism is building to a boil.
It's pure Hollywood to have a climactic showdown among these players coincide with the day of the real Rodney King verdict and its burning aftermath -- the rioting, looting, fury, and despair that pitted citizen against citizen. In propelling invented characters through a re-creation of actual historical mayhem and demanding that audiences think about consequences and not just ogle the action, though, ''Dark Blue'' goes where all too few films dare to venture these days -- into the heart of moral darkness.