February 21, 2003 11:09am EST
In March 1991 TV stations repeatedly broadcast an amateur videotape of LAPD officers kicking and clubbing Rodney King an unarmed black man. A year later an all-white jury acquitted three officers involved in the beating inciting a riot that killed 54 people and destroyed much of South Central Los Angeles. Dark Blue is a gritty police drama that unfolds in the four days leading up to the verdict. The story revolves around veteran cop Eldon Perry Jr. (Kurt Russell) who does what he needs to do to bring someone to justice even if it means planting a gun--or drugs--on a suspect. But police intimidation and corruption doesn't sit right with his rookie partner Bobby Keough (Scott Speedman). Their ideologies clash when the two are assigned to a high-profile quadruple homicide and receive orders from a high-ranking member of the LAPD to pin the crime on innocent suspects in order to appease the public. Keough contemplates going to Deputy Chief Arthur Holland (Ving Rhames) the only black man in the department about unfair police practices but is worried about going up against such a tight brotherhood. This cop flick is disturbingly realistic--which unfortunately is also its weakness. It tells us what we already know: that the history of the LAPD is meshed tightly with racism and corruption.
Dark Blue's Perry is a vulgar hard-drinking and unscrupulous cop--and Russell (3 000 Miles to Graceland) does a great job embodying the character. He swears knocks back drinks and smokes cigarettes like he's been doing this since birth. In fact Russell creates such a despicable character that I hoped he would get his ass kicked by rioters. As his naïve partner Keough Speedman (Duets) is a little bland. Keough redeems himself by rising above the police department's practices but Speedman's character is almost too nice and fresh-faced to be a cop in a city like L.A. As Deputy Chief Holland Rhames (Undisputed) is well cast but unfortunately the character is so one-dimensional that he doesn't make for a very passionate hero. The problem here is not the acting but the film's characters which are too simply drawn. Keough for example is not only unprejudiced he's politically correct--he has a black girlfriend and gets offended when his big bad partner uses the "n" word. And Holland is not only honorable he's a churchgoing community leader. It's not that these characteristics are bad but they are certainly tautological and stereotypical by movie standards.
If this movie sounds a lot like Training Day it's because scribe David Ayer wrote both of them. Unfortunately Dark Blue's characters are drawn with such a heavy hand they reek of clichés and are a far cry from Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke's complicated and well-developed characters in Training Day. Director Ron Shelton found success with the 1988 hit Bull Durham and--with the 1994 sports drama Cobb--proved that he could deliver character-driven movies that were well worth watching. Despite the rigid characters he manages to deliver a straight-up dirty-cop movie that effectively mirrors the LAPD. (Is Holland for example the film's take on former LAPD Chief of Police Bernard Parks?) Shelton achieves the film's true-to-life feel by leaving out slick car chases explosions and shootouts and paying closer attention to sets such as Perry's unadorned house and the clunker he drives. There are some great scenes towards the end of the film when Perry is driving through South Central as the riots--which caused an estimated $900 million in damages--break out. What's even more chilling however is the lack of LAPD presence at the riot epicenter.
There was a fresh quality to the original Spy Kids. The idea of two children finding out their parents were superspies whom they wind up having to rescue showed a new twist on kid empowerment. Unfortunately that fresh imagination which appealed to audiences and catapulted the original into a smash hit is not as prevalent in the sequel. What writer/director Robert Rodriguez does instead is further the story along; now there is a whole new branch of kid spies at the OSS. Juni Cortez (Daryl Sabara) and older sister Carmen (Alexa Vega) are now star Level 2 agents but brother/sister agents Gerti (Emily Osment) and Gary (Matt O'Leary) Giggles are quickly becoming stars in their own right. The two rivaling duos set off on a mission to a mysterious island their objective to locate and destroy a device that could wipe out all the world's technology. On the island they discover weird animals roaming around created by a mad scientist (Steve Buscemi) who is hiding somewhere on the island. Juni and Carmen soon run into big trouble when their gadgets and gizmos don't work. They have to use their wits to figure things out but a little help from the whole family--dad Gregorio (Antonio Banderas) mom Ingrid (Carla Gugino) and their grandparents (Holland Taylor and Ricardo Montalban)--doesn't hurt either. The time has come for a little family power to save the day.
Vega and Sabara continue to do a nice job in their roles as Carmen and Juni especially Vega. It is fun to see how she's grown up over the last year. Carmen is a young woman now and her amorous feelings towards Gary Giggles add a nice touch to her character. The interesting mother/daughter conflict between Carmen and Ingrid which was explored in the original has now switched to a conflict between Juni and his dad. Gregorio feels like his son doesn't need him anymore now that Juni is a super kid spy. It doesn't hold up quite as well. Sabara gets a little romance of his own in the form of the U.S. president's daughter (played by How the Grinch Stole Christmas's Taylor Momsen) and he handles the chores as little leading man well. Osment (who is a spitting image of her older more famous real-life brother Haley Joel) and O'Leary make nice additions to the story as the rival Giggles and if there's a third Spy Kids we hope they'll be a part of it. As far as the adults Banderas does well with his comedic moments but he and Gugino almost seem like caricatures of the loving parents they fleshed out so well in Spy Kids. Taylor Montalban and Buscemi are simply wasted. Period.
Spy Kids 2 relies more on special effects and gadgetry than the original did and that's a shame. The heart of Spy Kids was about family and trust but Rodriguez has chosen to focus more on the spy aspects than family issues in the sequel. Of course some may disagree with this assessment because the theme of family is certainly prevalent in Spy Kids 2. It just seems much more superficial and forced than the first. The thing to point out however is the special effects are not nearly as spectacular as they could have been. If the film is hyping itself as action-packed with gadgets galore then one might expect glorious visuals. Instead the effects are reminiscent of the early '70s Sinbad B-movies even down to Juni and Carmen fighting skeletons. And the island looks more like it should belong to Dr. Moreau with odd combo animals like the spider-monkey (half spider half monkey of course) and the slizard (you can guess). Maybe Rodriguez intended to use this particular style and if he did he should be told it didn't really work that well.
A promising young playwright Sidda Lee Walker (Sandra Bullock) lives in New York far enough away from her Louisiana hometown. After she gives a damaging interview to Time magazine--damaging mainly to her mother Vivianne Abbott Walker (Ellen Burstyn) who doesn't take lightly to her daughter's intonations that she was not a good mother--the two women begin a feud. It threatens to destroy not only their relationship but Sidda's own plans to marry her longtime boyfriend Connor (Angus MacFadyen). Enter the Ya-Ya Sisterhood--Caro (Maggie Smith) Teensy (Fionnula Flanagan) and Necie (Shirley Knight) Vivi's lifelong best friends. To bring mother and daughter back together the women decide it's time for Sidda to learn about the Divine Secrets of their little clique--and about her mother's painful past. They tell Sidda stories about the young Vivi (Ashley Judd) who was full of promise and hope but how certain tragic events damaged her. The bond between these four older women is unshakable and the most honest element to the film. The sad news for the novel's fans however is that while the script manages to convey the true spirit of friendship it can't quite capture the magic of the book.
In a cast of many the film is chock-full of wonderful performances but it's the matured Ya-Yas who steal the show. Smith plays the tough Caro a lifelong smoker now saddled with emphysema with all the biting wit the actress is best known for while Knight plays the sweet no-nonsense Necie with just a hint of sarcasm. Flanagan the best of the three shines as the wealthy Teensy a recovering alcoholic who has faced demons herself. Her exchanges are some of the more memorable especially when after being told by an angry Vivi that she could knock Teensy into next week Teensy tells her friend "And I'll kick your ass on Thursday." Yet the film truly belongs to Burstyn and Judd as the different faces of Vivi. Burstyn is all at once the highly dramatic Southern beauty who has come to terms with (or remained steeped in denial about however you look at it) her painful past while Judd gets to show us the nitty-gritty of what actually happened to Vivi to harden her. Unfortunately the weakest member of this ensemble cast is Bullock as Sidda. She never quite convinces us she grew up in such an eccentric and terribly Southern environment. And not to leave out the men completely--James Garner plays Sidda's father Shep with quiet patience having survived life with his lady love who never loved him quite the same in return. The devoted Connor mirrors Shep but MacFadyen plays him with a lot more backbone.
Oscar-winning screenwriter Callie Khouri (Thelma & Louise) couldn't have chosen a better film to make as her directorial debut. Sure she might be pigeonholed forever as the "chick flick" girl but she probably doesn't care much. Khouri had been approached to adapt Wells' novel a few times over the last couple of years but never had the time to do it. When the right time came along Khouri wisely decided it was also time to take on the directing chores. Even as a novice the writer/director shows us she knows her way around a camera. The film captures that Southern feel lush and languid as the moss drips down from the trees. She also knows how to handle her actors too and is able to elicit great performances (although with the likes of Burstyn and Smith this isn't hard to do). The soundtrack also is an added bonus with a variation of music from jazz to Louisiana Cajun. Yet even with all this going for it Divine Secrets misses a beat. In a novel it's great to read stories about an eccentric Southern family but to have vignettes told to you as a framework for a movie it can slow a film down. You probably won't be able to drag your husband to go see this one.