The cop genre receives a shot of adrenaline in helmer Chris Fisher's "Dirty," a no-nonsense dramatic response to the LAPD Rampart scandals of the '90s. Pairing a transformed Cuba Gooding Jr. and Fisher favorite Clifton Collins Jr. as morally compromised beat cops enduring a bad day on the streets is just the start of film's smart moves.
The cop genre receives a shot of adrenaline in helmer Chris Fisher’s “Dirty,” a no-nonsense dramatic response to the LAPD Rampart scandals of the ’90s. Pairing a transformed Cuba Gooding Jr. and Fisher favorite Clifton Collins Jr. as morally compromised beat cops enduring a bad day on the streets is just the start of film’s smart moves. By handing theatrical release reins (for spring opening) to exec producer Ash Shah’s Silver Nitrate, Sony has missed an opportunity to earn serious coin with a pic that should have terrific crossover appeal among multicultural aud niches, though studio (which holds vid rights) will enjoy bang-bang ancillary returns.
Though it was never conceived as the finale of a trilogy, Fisher’s latest completes a rough and very raw cycle of Los Angeles crime movies, starting with true-life serial killer dramas “Nightstalker” and “Hillside Strangler.” While he retains certain touches of shock and horror — along with a decibel-busting soundtrack — from earlier pics, Fisher takes huge strides forward in “Dirty,” fashioning a complex morality drama that overshadows films with similar themes from “Training Day” and “Crash” to “Dark Blue.”
Collins’ Officer Sancho narrates, in classic Los Angeles cop fiction style, the story of his dangerous transformation from gangbanger to cop. But on a sunny, yet grimy, day (brilliantly and seamlessly lensed in smog-stained color by Eliot Rockett and Danny Minnick), Sancho is on the brink of coming clean with LAPD’s Internal Affairs department about his involvement in drug-related corruption in his division, led by Capt. Spain (Keith David).
Sancho’s partner Adel (Gooding), so thoroughly corrupt that his upside-down nametag is a symbol of his rottenness, has no idea that Sancho is talking to IA cops, who are also investigating Sancho for accidentally killing a bystander during a shootout.
Spain, along with his nefarious Lieutenant (Cole Hauser), view the gang-infested streets as a war zone where any tactic is suitable, even if it includes ordering Sancho and Adel to remove a 13-kilo bag of heroin from an evidence room to frame Canadians horning in on the business of drug kingpin Baine (Wyclef Jean). Sancho rightly views the assignment as rife with traps, but he can’t control Adel’s urges to harass and abuse civilians, from white out-of-towners to Venice homies.
For a movie that stays true to its low-budget roots as a decidedly prol genre work, “Dirty” draws a vast panorama of Los Angeles street life and the similar hierarchies that rule black and Mexican gangs as well as the LAPD. There’s always some higher authority to answer to, just as there’s always another hidden agenda designed to bushwhack the unsuspecting foot soldiers, whether or not they wear a badge. It’s this parallel of criminal and law enforcement elements, along with its pointed portrait of non-Anglo cop partners on quite different moral paths, that distinguishes pic from other recent genre works.
Just as a certain fate seemed to hang over the serial killers in his previous thrillers, a dark cloud looms over Fisher’s cops here. This inevitability unfolds with genuinely tragic power, not only because of Fisher’s confidence in his material but also because of Gooding and Collins’ lusty embrace of their roles.
Collins adds to his fascinating gallery of portraits of bad men — or, in this case, extremely flawed men — internally tortured by their actions, but Gooding is a revelation. His Adel is a nasty and self-hating cop who has been so undone by what he’s witnessed on the beat. It’s just the tonic for an actor who has drifted into too many goody-goody roles since “Jerry Maguire.”
Supporting cast is studded with extremely vivid perfs, including the always magnetic David in his best role in years, Jean in colorful overdrive (and speaking a Jamaican patois that’s subtitled) and Robert LaSardo dominating a finale sequence rife with unbearable tension.
Pic looks and sounds fabulous, with Fisher showing off his love of soundtracks layered with noise, quiet and bone-rattling music. Los Angeles is a major star in the film, and with no iconic or familiar sights on view, it’s framed as only a local is able to.