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REVIEW – “Black and Blue” – Promisingly Clever Social Justice Drama Struggles to Show True Colors

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Alicia West (Naomie Harris) has not had it easy in her life. A child with some bad habits, scared of her city, and her upbringing, she returns to her native New Orleans a confident adult. Eager to begin a new career in the police force, following combat duty in Afghanistan, and the passing of her mother. And yet, so much can hold her back. Off duty, she’s still easily stopped on the street while on her morning jog, frisked by other cops, simply because she’s black. What they don’t know yet, she’s also blue. And both colors seem to run very deep in Black and Blue, a cop drama keen on fighting the status quo, and making workplace equality and police accountability comfortably mainstream. But sadly, it can’t avoid going stereotypical, hokey at times. For a film of this level of clout where I could swear the trailer offered minimal potential, that does sting. A lot.

Alicia is a bit of a lame duck in her new workplace, often only looking out for herself as the new rookie on the force. It’s a miracle she can get along with her overworked partner Kevin (Veep’s Reid Scott). But by chance, the moment Alicia gets the opportunity to prove herself on a double shift, her temporary partner (James Moses Black) is less than pleased. A long shift drains on for the pair, simple as all heck. But then, Alicia defies commands to remain in the car while Darius proceeds to answer to a supposed narc call. What she discovers runs deeper. Much, much deeper. In that she captures the unspoken actions of a group of untrustworthy, dirty cops, led by the aggressive Malone (Frank Grillo).

Make matters worse, it’s all captured on her bodycam, making her a prime target that, before long everyone’s chasing after. Even the fashionable drug kingpin Darius (Mike Colter) is out for her head, for reasons I needn’t spoil here. The only person Alicia can ultimately trust, is a nonpartial, convenience store owner, going by the nickname “Mouse” (Tyrese Gibson). And it becomes clear, instantly and predictably, how much they need each other to clear her name and expose an unwashed underbelly of common corruption that many residents are just fed up with.

These are some established themes to be addressed in film. And they have, yet not so directly or adherently as in the manner director Deon Taylor, and screenwriter Peter Dowling (Flightplan) aims for. Prevalent, but not excessively overt. The idea of race impacting social structure or job security exists in this film, but it’s not the driving factor. It’s more the concept of bad policing, the virtue of “who’s policing the police”, et cetera. If nothing else, Alicia’s despair and tenacity pay off toward her pursuit for justice. “You think you’ve made a change in this world?”, one of the officers ask head-on toward her. That will be up for debate, as not one single person on their own could potentially alter the course of culture. But at least a spark can be lit.

Taylor, who made my love of B-movie schlock whir into a frenzy earlier this year with The Intruder, makes another easy play in that territory, but on a grander scale. Seeing a side of NOLA still rebuilding and reorganizing post-Katrina, that’s plenty admirable on its own. The lack of trust in our police force, particularly when any of them could have nefarious motives? That could’ve been its own unique film as well. But mix that in with the socio-political angle, and Alicia’s own struggles with self-identity, and we have a ripe mess unsure of which direction to go, forced to endure rather typical, drawn out chasing and fighting sequences. And a mix of rather good actors in plainly underwhelming parts.

Of course, Harris is still a delight to watch in nearly anything. I’m biased, however, if her contributions to the legacy of 007 remain her most iconic work. Here, as energetic, enthralling, exuberantly badass as she is, she can’t quite make her own journey completely watchable. Colter is almost a disappointment to endure, his character somewhat undercooked; if he had more time onscreen, surely my opinion would be more glowing. Grillo and Gibson perhaps fare best among the cast, simply because their characters are the most genuine and non-artificial.

Grillo’s really made a knack as of late for portraying baddies who know they’re doing wrong and look good doing so. The type of characters we easily love to hate; for that reason, he’d be the best reason to check out his role in Point Blank, if one hasn’t already. Gibson’s perhaps the best surprise, going far beyond his comfort zone for a character who’s nothing without a firm moral compass. Perhaps the polar opposite to Malone, in at least one respect. A stark departure from many of his past roles, and that somehow works.

Capped off with some brilliant city imagery shot by Dante Spinotti (never would’ve expected he shot classics like Last of the Mohicans back in his 90s heyday), Black and Blue just cannot push past its own pigeonholing. There ought to have been a redeeming smile on my face upon leaving the theater. Instead, I was just as cold, conflicted and confused as our heroine. For what Taylor manages to get right, it still feels wrong, even hollow. Good intentions clear, but not really executed well. When we look for a little more sophistication in our police dramas, I feel Taylor had that intent, and there were points where that mark was surpassed. Only to find ourselves back in the guise of a bad action movie. This cast may deserve better next time. Long story short, it’s effective when it wants to be, until it’s not. And much of the time, even when it honestly could be, frustratingly it just isn’t. (C-; 2.5/5 Horns Up!)

Black and Blue plays in most area theaters this weekend; rated R for violence and language; 108 minutes.