“Black and Blue” is a lean, simple, pulse-pounding thriller built around an intensely relatable star, a perfectly alarming villain and a story that has the ring of “ripped from today’s headlines” about it.
It’s a genre picture, plain and simple — a clean cop chased by dirty cops through an arresting setting — foggy, rainy and wintry New Orleans. Director Deon Taylor, of “The Intruder” and “Traffik,” working from a Peter A. Dowling script (“Flightplan,” “Reasonable Doubt”), keeps us guessing which of the three or four obvious directions this can play out with will be one the characters choose.
And damned if they don’t manage a surprise or two, almost in spite of themselves.
Naomie Harris, a slip of a thing who is Moneypenny to Daniel Craig’s James Bond, plays Alicia West, a Big Easy native who returns from military service to take a job on one of the nation’s more notorious police forces.
Growing up in the 9th Ward, she is idealistic enough to think relating to the few folks she still knows there, making conversation in the best “community policing” fashion, will let her affect change.
A veteran of the force (James Moses Black) sets her straight.
“WE are your people,” he says. She’s no longer black. “You’re blue, now.”
That is put almost instantly to the test when she witnesses the execution of some young drug dealers.
Alicia, a rookie, but a veteran once stationed in Kandahar, has no problem with the new department-issued body cams. That’s what seals her fate. It’s on while Narc Malone (a ferocious Frank Grillo) pulls the trigger. He’s barely attempted to explain “This ISN’T what it looks like,” when a subordinate riddles Alicia with bullets. If not for the bullet proof vest, her wounds would be worse.
Now, she’s on the run, unarmed — she dropped her gun — with a dead cell phone and a vest-attached camera archiving explosive video that exposes a vast, corrupt conspiracy within her precinct. Who can she trust? How can she survive, on foot and bleeding?
How will justice be done?
Early scenes neatly establish her inability to reconnect with “her” people, among them Milo (Tyrese Gibson), the older brother of a friend, and a onetime teen pal (Nafessa Williams) who runs with the wrong crowd, and is all “I don’t KNOW her” now.
It’s no surprise when doors slam in Alicia’s face as she frantically runs from house to house.
“Oh HELL nawwwww”
Early scenes have also established the soul-crushing brutality of police relations with the African American community in the 9th. Routine thumpings under the guise of “stop and frisk,” a real cop as prosecutor/judge and jury complex amongst “Blue,” who are “armed, and with a bullet proof vest” have traumatized much of the populace.
And this woman, this “You one’a THEM” whom bystanders, drug dealers and frantic hunting cops call “Bitch” about 400 times, and in 400 different ways, wants help?
Gibson does some of his best screen acting by doing less, playing a man beaten down by a life of limited choices, a system and constant violent, humiliating encounters with those who claim “To protect and serve.”
Grillo is emerging as the finest heavy of his generation, a villain with native cunning and a ruthlessness built on a calculus that he lets you see in every raised eyebrow or steely glare.
But Harris is the key here, letting us see how troubled she is about the state of her city and of relations between the “black” and the “blue.” We believe her idealism, her good intentions and her naivete. And we appreciate her wide-eyed panic.
“They’re trying to KILL me, man!”
I don’t want to oversell “Black and Blue.” It doesn’t transcend its genre. But it doesn’t waste our time, modulates its chase with alternating brisk and slow pacing, hand-held camera sprints interrupted by bursts of violence and stops, every so often, at a moral crossroad.
“She’s ain’t one’a us. She picked her side!”
The cleverness of the picture is that we doubt she has, and we’re never confident either “side” will pick her.
MPAA Rating: R for violence and language
Cast: Naomie Harris, Tyrese Gibson, Frank Grillo, Mike Colter, Nefessa Williams and Reid Scott
Credits: Directed by Deon Taylor, script by Peter A. Dowling. A Screen Gems release.
Running time: 1:48