On His Game

Director Ron Shelton, a most valuable player in sports films, takes aim at the gray areas in cop movie 'Dark Blue.'

February 20, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Ron Shelton has written and directed a string of the best sports films ever made. They include famous ones such as the sexy, elegiac baseball classic Bull Durham, the raffish street-basketball smash White Men Can't Jump and the slapstick golf romance Tin Cup. But just as good or better is the barely released boxing comedy-drama Play It to the Bone - a movie that if made by a Frenchman like Bertrand Blier, would have been hailed as a daring look at the absurd rifts and cracks within the warrior psyche.

Shelton's vision of the human tragicomedy has always gone beyond sporting arenas. His little-seen Blaze pays tribute to Louisiana backroom politics as practiced by Earl Long. His even-less-seen masterpiece about Ty Cobb, Cobb, indelibly sketches an all-time-great baseball player who is also a darkly funny and harrowing American archetype: the self-made genius whose drive and tunnel vision simultaneously immortalize him and turn him into a monster.

So to Shelton fans it's no surprise that his bristling, unexpectedly moving Dark Blue, which opens tomorrow in Baltimore, is the best cop drama to hit the big or small screen since L.A. Confidential. Both films have their roots in the work of James Ellroy, who wrote the novel L.A. Confidential and the original story for Dark Blue.

Shelton has never let typecasting affect him as an artist. His experience as a minor-league ballplayer in the Baltimore Orioles system may give him some cachet with jock-wannabe executives. But the screenplay that hooked him up with director Roger Spottiswoode was a comedy about a real-estate developer called Antelope Valley. Their initial collaboration was a seat-of-the-pants reworking of the D.B. Cooper aerial heist story (The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper). And Shelton first gained critical notice as Spottiswoode's writer on Under Fire, the thrilling, sophisticated story of American journalists swept up in Nicaragua's Sandinista revolution.

For Under Fire and his follow-up with Spottiswoode, the note-perfect small-town comedy The Best of Times, Shelton enlisted as a second unit director. Knowing that directors are apt to get antsy when writers talk to actors, Shelton recently said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles, "I would hang out with the actors after takes and in bars - and that's when most of your directing gets done. The basis of good direction is creating constructive, trusting relationships. I believe in rehearsals - that's where you try out new lines, crazy things - but on the set I want my actors to be like horses at a horse race."

By now, Shelton's ability to get the most out of performers as different as Woody Harrelson, Rosie Perez and Kevin Costner, in scenes that crackle with colloquial wit and existential confusion, has made him a director smart stars put on their own A-lists.

That's the case with Dark Blue's lead actor Kurt Russell, who gave his juiciest comic performance in The Best of Times and here brings scope and roiling passion to Eldon Perry, an ace dirty cop in L.A.'s prestigious, morally tainted Special Investigations Squad.

After his days as a Disney child star, Russell, too, had been a minor-league ballplayer (for the California Angels system). And during The Best of Times, he and Shelton had talked about doing the baseball movie to top all baseball movies. Shelton ended up directing Costner in Bull Durham, but Dark Blue is more than belated compensation. Russell conjures a towering presence in this movie. Without distorting any scene or distancing himself from his fellow actors, he makes melancholy and depression as well as anger and love pierce laser-like from his eyes.

Good and evil

Over the phone from L.A., Russell revealed that when he first read the script that became Dark Blue, back in '96 or '97, it was then called The Plague Season, and the actor thought it was "not hitting on all cylinders. Eldon Perry was a one-dimensional bad guy, and it read like a simple condemnation of the police department. Then Ronny called a couple of years later and said he wanted to do The Plague Season - and our locker-room sensibilities meshed. We knew we needed to open Eldon's character up - to let an audience see Eldon through Eldon's eyes."

"When I got involved," Shelton says, "I told Kurt that I want this movie to live in the gray areas between good and evil. Eldon crosses the line along the way, and an audience should see the recognition of that choice dawn on the character. We needed to have a sense that this guy became who he is because he's part of the LAPD culture. He grew up in a family of gunfighters." Suddenly, Eldon became a figure as resonant as Crash Davis in Bull Durham and as huge as Cobb. "I've been dying to do a Western," says Shelton, "but you can't get Westerns made anymore. I thought of Dark Blue as a Western every day I was shooting it. The Western has an outsize mythology - and the mythology of the LAPD is a Western mythology. Eldon Perry is a cowboy. It's even embedded in his language."

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