Naomie Harris Brings True Grit to ‘Black and Blue’
“Black and Blue” is here to remind us that in a movie urban setting you can never trust anyone in the police force. It’s one of those thrillers where every badge is hiding something and drug lords apparently have better morals than detectives, but what stands out best is a strong lead performance by Naomie Harris, full of the kind of grit suited for an edgier film.
Alicia West (Harris) is a rookie African-American cop returning to patrol her old neighborhood in New Orleans. It’s a tough job in certain parts of town where the black community is understandably suspicious of the police, many of whom roam neighborhoods like tough enforcers. But for the most part West gets along with partner Kevin (Reid Scott), who can sometimes be that white cop unaware of how he comes across. When West agrees to cover for Kevin on his date night, she finds herself riding with veteran officer Deacon Brown (James Moses Black). The patrol turns into a nightmare when West sees Brown and some undercover detectives, including the violent Terry Malone (Frank Grillo), shoot dead an unarmed, young black informant. The corrupt cops see West and even worse, notice that her body camera filmed the entire incident. Now she’s on the run, seeking help from a small store owner named Milo ‘Mouse’ Jackson (Tyrese Gibson). Malone and his goons are desperate to find West, kill her and get rid of the bodycam footage before the truth gets out.
The real star of “Black and Blue” is its look. Director Deon Taylor works here with master cinematographer Dante Spinotti, who shot some of Michael Mann’s best films including “Heat” and “The Last of the Mohicans,” as well as Curtis Hanson’s “L.A. Confidential.” Spinotti and Taylor abandon the traditional look New Orleans usually gets at the movies, instead setting the story under grey skies amid decayed streets, rusty buildings and smoky, abandoned factories. Old neighborhoods look like battlegrounds where thugs roam in the shadows. In terms of gritty ambiance this film certainly delivers. Taylor, a rather versatile director of quick genre flicks, also demonstrated some strong visual flare earlier this year in the otherwise absurd “The Intruder.”
Along with the photography the other strong element here is Naomie Harris, taking a break from playing Eve Moneypenny in the Bond movies to flex her action chops solo. She certainly has the grit and energy for such a role, convincingly dashing through buildings, knocking over bad guys and sticking a gun into some villain’s face. Gone is the flirtatious tone of her 007 role, we can truly buy her as a cop on the beat. What doesn’t work is that the script isn’t suited to her abilities. It’s just too much of a rehash where a recycled plot is re-done without any added purpose. There are many, fascinating subthemes buried in the screenplay by Peter A. Dowling such as West facing a neighborhood she left behind or the ongoing debate over police brutality. But unlike more serious efforts like “The Hate U Give” or “End of Watch,” it’s all fodder for shootouts. An old childhood friend named Missy (Nafessa Williams) has potential as the opposite to West. While West left to become a cop, Missy stayed behind as the girlfriend of drug lord Darius (Mike Colter), who is of course decked with a gold grill. It turns out young informant shot dead by Malone and his cronies was related to Darius, so you can imagine how West can use this to her advantage when Malone tries to put a price on her head. Actually, you don’t have to imagine it because the writing is so on the nose there are literally lines in the style of, “there, I shot everyone who would know about what’s going on.”
After West witnesses the murder and makes a run for it the movie becomes nothing more than a recognizable chase. Tyrese Gibson, of “Fast and the Furious” fame, plays the calm nice guy who helps West and is later accidentally caught in the line of fire when Darius decides to torture him for information. There’s nothing much to Malone and his buddies except that they are crooked and need that bodycam to cover up their crimes. Frank Grillo at least seems to be having a good time playing the stereotypical movie psycho who barks orders, issues threats with a husky voice and gets what’s coming to him. Most of the movie is him and Brown scrambling through neighborhoods in search of our running heroine. The dialogue takes on a curiously funny tone as everyone looks at each other, confused, yelling “she got away!” The ending becomes a slight rip-off of “Training Day,” as West marches alone into the worst neighborhood in town to clear her name and face off with Malone. Darius will become one of those understanding drug lords who turn into an ally when he realizes those crooked cops were not trustworthy. Incredibly we even get one of those intense climaxes where everything boils down to a file being uploaded as more shootouts ensue while the clock on the computer screen counts down.
“Black and Blue” plays some old notes with new faces, but adds nothing new to the music. It wastes a lot of ammo to conclude that corrupt movie cops never win and great actresses can make the ridiculous believable. In a sense you don’t need this review, you’ve already seen the movie.
“Black and Blue” opens Oct. 25 in theaters nationwide.