Black and Blue, a very modern dirty cop movie, is blessed with a tough-as-nails protagonist, set in a town where locals don’t trust police and told in short succinct scenes that have a steady rhythm.
B&B doesn’t have the pedigree of a Sidney Lumet crime drama (Prince of the City), the blistering sadistic peril of an Antoine Fuqua movie (Training Day) or the bottom-of-the-gutter sensibility of an Abel Ferrara neo noir (Bad Lieutenant). Yet, it holds up in its own way and the urban audience who will flock to it may well appreciate its themes and stay engaged for the duration.
In New Orleans, an underworld of corrupt cops is as dangerous as the gangs they pursue. No one tells that to the rookie Alicia West (Naomie Harris, Moonlight) the night she decides to work a double shift to help her partner Kevin (Reid Scott, Veep). He goes home, and West innocently partners up with veteran Officer Deacon Brown (James Moses Black). As they work into the night, it’s as if she can’t do anything right. Caring for the black citizens in the ward they patrol does not go over well with her superior officer: “You think because they’re black, they’re your people… We are! You’re Blue!”
The duo drives up to an abandoned power plant. West is told to wait in the car. Minutes roll by, and when Deacon doesn’t return, she goes inside. She’s wearing a bulletproof vest, a police camera and is brandishing her gun. As West stumbles into a vast room, she is shocked by what she sees. Bullets head her way. She’s dazed, afraid and traumatized as she runs for her life. Sprinting down alleys. Hiding in crevices. Knocking on doors that won’t open. She’s being hunted. Like prey.
If you want to make a character feel real, hire Naomie Harris. She was brilliant and equally frenzied in the horror film 28 Days Later. She wallowed in gutter life in the Oscar-winning film Moonlight, as a drug addicted mother. If there is a boundary between character and actor, it’s blurred beyond recognition when Harris takes a role.
The writing (Peter A. Dowling, Reasonable Doubt), direction (Deon Taylor) and Harris’ seamless interpretation of Alicia West make the proceedings seem within the realm of possibilities. Organic. Non-sensational. West was raised in NOLA on the same poor side of town that she patrols. She’s an ex-soldier, a tough war veteran. Opening scenes depict her as a committed jogger.
That background gives her street cred, even as she encounters hostile locals she used to know: “Uncle Tom ass Bitch!” The armed forces experience makes her self-reliant and resilient. When she’s able to run away from gun-toting sociopaths, we don’t question her endurance. With this set up, this strong-willed cop is ready for the good fight.
The pacing (editor Peck Prior) doesn’t let up. Moments of drama are sparse, and when they show up it’s to add depth to the character or dimension to the environment. When West meets folks from her old neighborhood, who are suspicious of her new job, you don’t question their reluctance or her commitment to finding common ground. When she turns to old acquaintance Milo (Tyrese Gibson) for aid, you know why he rejects her and why she persists.
The music (Geoff Zanelli) doesn’t intrude, adding just enough edge. The footage (cinematographer, Dante Spinotti, L.A. Confidential) doesn’t look overly pretty and deftly captures action scenes. Sets (Bradford Johnson), costumes (Lauren Bott) and art direction (Mark A. Terry) are equally unobtrusive, and it all helps the atmosphere stay low to the ground.
Harris’s emotionally distraught yet determined performance pulls you into West’s plight. Shot at. Wounded. Struggling for her life and not knowing who she can trust—you get it. You’re glued to her dilemma. Tyrese, surprisingly, turns in an equally gutsy performance playing Milo as a strong and laconic man.
Kudos to Mike Colter (TV’s Luke Cage) for strutting down streets as the gang leader Darius, wearing a leather coat with a huge fur collar. Not every actor could pull off this style and still look like he’s from the tough side of town. But his swagger is genuine. Reid Scott as Kevin, Nafessa Williams as West’s childhood friend Missy and James Moses Black as the older cop are solid.
Frank Grillo (The Purge: Anarchy) plays Terry Malone, the ringleader of the dirty cops, and looks a bit too Hollywood for the part. The role needed a grittier looking actor, in the vein of a Ray Liotta or Harvey Keitel. Or, someone should have shaved off Grillo’s GQ, soap-opera-actor moussed hair into a crewcut, which would have made him look more demonic and possibly helped him get deeper into the character. Also, when the trio of wayward cops converse (Grillo, Black and actor Beau Knapp), that’s the time when the dialogue seems the most clichéd and generic. Like it belongs in a straight-to-video title.
For director Deon Taylor, who leaves behind him a trail of knock-off, b-movie thrillers (Traffik, The Intruder), this venture is a step up. Better script. Better choices. The most talented actress he’s ever directed. An Oscar-nominated cinematographer. Judicious creative decisions. He should thank his team, take this momentum and aim higher.
Black and Blue is taut and tense in a way that will give it a long life on cable TV and streaming services. Meanwhile, any imperfections that are obvious on the big screen will likely be forgiven by its target urban audience.