I nodded off.
I know that’s the last thing you want to hear from me. It’s like having the doctor tell you your X-rays look “cancerish” before ambling out of the office and onto the links. It’s hardly professional behavior, and it’s not why you’re paying him. I’ll admit, I’m as surprised as you are that it happened; I haven’t fallen asleep in a movie theater since I went with friends to see the midnight premiere of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. About 90 minutes in, I realized that, having read the book several times, I probably wouldn’t miss anything if I caught a few winks before Helm’s Deep. (I was right, too.) But the sudden loss of consciousness I experienced today came at me by surprise: Suddenly I was aware that it was very dark, and that the thing I felt on the side of my head was actually my shoulder. I opened my eyes and looked up at the screen, hoping that maybe the film had burned up, or the projector had broken, or maybe it was the apocalypse. But no such luck. I was still in the theater, Dirty was still playing, and I still had a long way to go.
As is so often the case, things start bad and go downhill from there. As LAPD Officer Sancho (could there be a more obvious way to allude to his sidekick status?), Clifton Collins Jr. makes a noble effort to carry over some of the humility and depth he displayed as killer Perry Smith in Capote. Unfortunately, Fisher’s screenplay isn’t anywhere near the caliber of Dan Futterman’s, as evidenced by Sancho’s inflectionless and completely unnecessary voice-over at the beginning of the film. Sancho explains that he used to be in a gang, and that he loved it, as if tattoos, scars, and flashbacks weren’t enough to clue us in. He suits up to go pick up his partner, Salim Adel (Cuba Gooding Jr.), who falls somewhere between Matt Dillon and Denzel Washington when it comes to corruption and acting ability. Salim comes out wearing street clothes, but Sancho’s wearing his uniform and forces Salim to put his own uniform on as well. The uniforms might not seem like much, but they’re Sancho’s way to try and hang onto the fact that they’re police officers, and that they shouldn’t be doing the criminal things they’re doing. But the corruption has spread “like a plague” throughout their ranks, Sancho tells us, and it’s true. As soon as he and Salim arrive at the headquarters for their anti-gang unit, which looks like it was designed and lit by Jerry Bruckheimer, it becomes clear that every one of these cops is nothing but a thug with a badge, using their right to bear arms and the protection of the thin blue line to get away with actual murder every day. As the story opens Sancho has reached his breaking point and is ready to spill everything to internal affairs, who are investigating his unit after Sancho and Salim killed a bystander while taking down a pair of gangsters.
After roll call, Sancho and Salim meet with Capt. Spain, played by Keith David, one of Hollywood’s go-to men for Vaguely Corrupt Black Antagonists. He’s definitely willing to overlook the law to clean up the streets, but his dishonesty is no match for that of the lieutenant (Cole Hauser), who runs the unit like a mafia boss. The lieutenant assigns Sancho and Salim the task of boosting some coke from the evidence lock-up to sell to a local gangster; it’s an obvious setup, and Sancho smells it, but Salim’s too busy dreaming about the rims he can buy and assaulting white passersby to notice. That’s Salim’s favorite pastime: harassing civilians. He and Sancho pull over next to an SUV near downtown L.A., and though Sancho faintly attempts to help the lost driver and his wife, Salim hauls the man out of the car and throws him over the hood. It’s cruel, but actually pretty mild compared to the teenage girl Salim will assault later, choking her with one hand while his other explores beneath her skirt. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Sancho and Salim take off to the first of a series of meetings with various dealers, pimps, and low-level crime lords, in a simple but somehow elusive plot involving all that coke and a duffel bag full of cash liberated from a beachfront bungalow where a bunch of Canadians were selling dope to tourists. At least, that’s part of the plot. I was aware of what was happening as it unfolded, but trying to recall the specifics just a few hours after the credits rolled is bringing up a “Scene Missing” card in my head.
Cuba Gooding Jr., we can all admit, has broken the trust he established with the American public when he won the Oscar for best supporting actor for Jerry Maguire. He’s since made a decade of bad career choices and awful movies, including Rat Race, Snow Dogs, and Boat Trip. He’s said in interviews that he remembers being several years ago where Terrence Howard is now, and he wants to get back on the right track. Unfortunately, Dirty isn’t going to do it. Gooding wants to be badder than King Kong, but Fisher just won’t let him. It’s a shame, too, since Gooding still has the innate charisma he brought to Rod Tidwell, but without a quality script and director to channel his talent, he’s going to stay the guy that used to be on top.
Fisher manages to separate his script from the pack by playing up the supernatural; Sancho sees the ghost of the dead bystander everywhere. It’s a trick worthy of a horror film, and incorporating it here lends the story in interesting depth. Unfortunately, it’s too underused to do any good. Fisher should have focused more on Sancho’s spiritual guilt and the afterlife, but instead he resorts to empty cop cliches and ineffective thrills.
Fisher’s in love with extreme close-ups, but he actually manages to make up for it with the skilled editing of Tom Sanders and Miklos Wright. They manage to create a modest level of excitement in a few of the film’s many chase scenes, but their work only goes so far. Fisher can’t create the kind of mood Antoine Fuqua could in Training Day, the most obvious of Dirty’s many inspirations. Fuqua manufactured some genuine tension in his film, particularly in the scene where Ethan Hawke sits at the dinner table and shows the homies his gun. You know which way the scene is bound to go, but by letting it play out at its own pace, Fuqua lets the pressure build to a fantastic boiling point. Conversely, Fisher never lets things get started, content to let flash cuts, music stings, and gritty lights try and tell a story he knows he can’t.
Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor for a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Going Bald.Dirty / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()