Throughout his career, particularly in John Carpenter films such as Big Trouble In Little China and Escape From New York, Kurt Russell has perfected a genial John Wayne persona with a cocky drawl and swagger, but also a dopey smile that gives him away. Just enough of Russell's shaggy-dog charisma seeps into Ron Shelton's powerful Dark Blue to make his shady antihero truly dangerous, because his horrible misdeeds never quite place him beyond redemption. Based on an original story by James Ellroy, the toughest of modern-day pulp writers, the film bears a skeletal resemblance to Ellroy's L.A. Confidential, but brings its multi-layered take on LAPD corruption closer to the present, with startling immediacy and grit. Much of the action takes place in the few days before the Rodney King verdict and culminates in the riots that followed, but Ellroy and Shelton are gutsy enough to fan the flames, suggesting that the city needed to be razed before it could hope to rebuild. In a department poisoned by racial division and systemic rot, Russell qualifies as a "good soldier," a seasoned detective who isn't above cutting corners, even if it means planting evidence, taking payoffs, doctoring search warrants, and shaking down people for information. As the film opens, Russell appears in front of a shooting board to defend greenhorn partner Scott Speedman from charges that he used unnecessary force in killing a suspect. Russell's lies win the day, but a dissenting vote comes from lone black board member Ving Rhames, who's determined to expose Russell and his cronies no matter the physical and political consequences. Against this backdrop, Russell and Speedman look into a horrific quadruple homicide that appears to have been a convenience-store robbery gone wrong, but grows more sinister as its tentacles stretch into high places within the department. Like his counterpart Russell Crowe in L.A. Confidential, Russell possesses investigative instincts as sharp as his methods are dubious: He fingers the lowlife perpetrators lickety-split, but he's so thoroughly compromised that it's become impossible to do the right thing. Made in the spirit of hardboiled B-pictures, Dark Blue is designed as a sucker punch in the gut, a blunt and unsparing reminder that the King beating was not an isolated incident, but a symptom of a larger and still relevant problem within the force. Occasionally, Shelton's direction hits more like a hammer than a clenched fist–isn't the point-blank shooting of an unarmed man awful enough without the shot of a little girl's bottle shattering?–but only because his passion gets the better of him. Flaws and all, Dark Blue has a combustible energy that's usually anathema to Hollywood, reopening an old wound that has festered too quietly for more than a decade.