Law and disorder

"Dark Blue" and "The Life of David Gale" are the kind of movies Hollywood used to tout as "ripped from today's headlines!"

Neither is quite as cutting-edge or provocative as the promos would like us to think, but it's encouraging for a single week to bring two pictures depicting timely real-world issues.

The more surprising of the pair is Dark Blue, which could have been a routine crooked-cop melodrama. It gains a major charge of dramatic energy from Kurt Russell's ferocious acting, almost certainly the best of his career.

It profits even more from its ingenious story, by crime novelist James Ellroy, who had the inspired idea of setting the tale in Los Angeles as four real-life crooked cops, charged with the savage beating of motorist Rodney King, are about to be acquitted by a jury whose decision will touch off a widespread explosion of racial violence.

Mr. Russell plays Eldon Perry, a second-generation LAPD veteran who sees breaking the rules as an everyday part of bringing down the city's bad guys. His rookie partner (Scott Speedman) has a less ruthless attitude, but Perry knows he'll come around once a few nerve-jolting crises have scrambled his morals and hardened his soul.

Neither of them realize they're pawns in a larger game controlled by a high-powered officer (Brendan Gleeson) who regards everyone from fellow cops to petty thugs as puppets he can manipulate for his own ends. Another step up in the hierarchy is an assistant chief (Ving Rhames) who wants to end all this dishonesty and dissembling - partly because it's wrong, and partly because combating it will serve his political ambitions.

Looming over all this is the Rodney King trial, flooding the city's racially sensitive nervous system with forebodings of destruction and death, timed to erupt just as these intrigues come to a menacing climax.

Penned by screenwriter David Ayer from Mr. Ellroy's story idea, "Dark Blue" spins an unusually complicated yarn. It also embraces a wide range of secondary characters, from Perry's long-suffering wife (Lolita Davidovich) to a female officer (Michael Michele) romantically involved with both Perry's partner and the assistant chief.

This might have been unwieldy, and there are patches in the story - like the talky scene where Perry confronts his ethical dilemmas in public - when the picture could have used some trimming and streamlining. In general, though, director Ron Shelton keeps it clear and involving. He seems better suited for crime dramas than for the sports movies ("Bull Durham," "Tin Cup") he's best known for. This bodes well for his rap-centered thriller "Hollywood Homicide," due next summer.

And look for Russell to be a contender in next year's Oscar race, if voters can remember this far back when the 2004 balloting arrives.

The Life of David Gale takes on a more unusual topic than police corruption. It looks at capital punishment through the eyes of an activist (Kevin Spacey) who opposes the death penalty on moral and practical grounds - and finds himself facing that very punishment when he's convicted of a capital crime.

What's interesting about philosophy professor Gale is that he's no ivory-tower intellectual. He's an all-too-human guy with problems, from a shaky marriage to a weakness for alcohol.

Things get worse when he loses his job because of a trumped-up rape charge, and worse yet when he's found guilty of murdering a fellow political protester (Laura Linney) found dead after a tryst with him.

The movie is structured around three days of interviews between Gale and a reporter (Kate Winslet) allowed to visit him on death row. Convinced there's more to his story than the world is aware of, she launches an inquiry into his past, which we see in flashbacks that occupy much of the film.

Capital punishment has been a point of contention in American life for a long time, and it's become a complicated issue as factors such as DNA evidence and execution moratoriums have entered the debate. The makers of "The Life of David Gale," including director Alan Parker and screenwriter Charles Randolph, deserve credit for entering this tumultuous territory.

That said, the movie gets few points for taking courageous stands. The screenplay is more interested in hairpin plot twists than moral niceties, and its "surprise" ending - which seemed obvious to me 90 minutes before it arrived - raises more ethical and psychological questions than it answers. None are compelling enough to challenge entrenched views of death-penalty issues or the larger criminal-justice questions surrounding them.

Mr. Spacey gives a characteristically solid performance as the tormented hero, and Ms. Linney has moments of real passion as his idealistic colleague. In the end, though, "The Life of David Gale" is an Alan Parker potboiler in the tradition of his "Angela's Ashes" and "Come See the Paradise" - more concerned with quickening our pulses than broadening our minds.

• Both movies, rated R, contain sex, vulgar language, and explicit violence.

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