Forget about the Bloods and the Crips. In Dirty, the most lethal gang on the streets of Los Angeles is the one decked out in natty navy-blue uniforms and gold-plated badges, and whose motto — “To Protect and to Serve” — applies exclusively to its own initiates. Yes, it’s time for another movie about LAPD officers less interested in keeping the peace than in cornering a piece of the action — a veritable cinematic subgenre in recent years (Crash, Training Day and the excellent Dark Blue), born out of the memory of the Rampart scandal and our collective suspicion that where there are a few cops past their sell-by date, there are surely more to follow. But Dirty is the only one of this lot that says the hell with hand-wringing moral melodrama, and proceeds to scale the heights of histrionic urban paranoia. It’s a throwback to a time when you could dip into a seedy Times Square or Hollywood Boulevard movie palace and have all your worst fears about city life affirmed by the likes of Vigilante, 1990: The Bronx Warriors or Assault on Precinct 13 — or, if you were lucky, by two of them on a double bill.
Dirty isn’t the first such grind-house valentine signed, sealed and delivered by the young director Chris Fisher, who grew up in Southern California and whose previous credits include a couple of industrious, direct-to-video cheapies based on the Nightstalker and Hillside Strangler cases. But it’s by far his most luridly appealing. Set during one single day on L.A.’s mean streets, the film follows two officers from an elite anti-gang task force — Mexican-American Armando Sancho (Clifton Collins Jr.) and his partner, African-American Salim Adel (Cuba Gooding Jr.) — as they consort with known felons, rough up innocent bystanders, tamper with evidence and otherwise mark their territory. In one scene, they even get their kicks from harassing a couple of stranded white motorists who’ve made the mistake of whispering something unflattering about Sancho’s “accent” under their breath — a crude but deft reminder of the relish the once-oppressed may take in becoming the oppressor.
As Dirty begins, Sancho and Adel are asked by their division lieutenant (a suitably smarmy Cole Hauser) if they know the definition of “opportunity,” before he goes on to present them with one: Remove 13 kilos of high-grade cocaine from an evidence locker, courier it to a drug-running Rastafarian nightclub owner named Baine (Wyclef Jean), return with both Baine’s money and the drugs, and a pair of court-side seats to the NBA playoffs await them for their troubles. The two officers consent, despite already being the subject of an encroaching internal-affairs investigation, only to find themselves caught up in a spidery tangle of double and triple crosses. And then the shit really hits the fan — a fan that happens to belong to a Mexican Mafioso (Robert LaSardo) for whom every day is the day of the dead.
Less a story of good cops and bad cops than of bad cops and worse cops, Dirty walks the razor’s edge between cautionary apocalyptic fable and nihilist fever dream — in short, don’t look for an endorsement from the Convention and Visitors Bureau anytime soon. Like the best pulp, though, it gets its hooks into you faster than you can start to wonder why you should possibly care about what happens to any of its despicable characters, and, before you know it, you’ve been pulled deep into its Dantean vision. That’s largely a credit to Fisher, who rewrote an original script by Gil Reavill and Eric Saks and who keeps things moving at a terse, take-no-prisoners clip — so much so that he doesn’t need half of the psychotropic camera and editing effects he deploys to give the film “energy.” The energy is right there, in Fisher’s instinctual feel for the varied textures and rhythms of the Los Angeles basin, from downtown’s teeming ethnic marketplaces to the hippie enclaves of Venice Beach, and in the performances of Collins and Gooding, who strike brilliant sparks off each other as they come to the fatalistic realization that they are each other’s last best hope for survival in a conspiracy that’s bigger — and dirtier — than they are. Gooding is terrifically exciting to watch here, casting off the shackles of his genteel, shucking-and-jiving Jerry Maguire caricature (and its innumerable retreads) and seeming to grow larger and more commanding right before our eyes, getting stoked on his own evildoing and transforming Salim Adel from just another crooked cop into an embattled king of the asphalt jungle. When he roars, the Earth trembles. Indeed, King Kong — to say nothing of Denzel Washington — ain’t got nothing on him.
Arriving in theaters the same day as Dirty is another portrait of big-city corruption, this one rooted entirely in fact and, as is so often the case, all the stranger and more unsettling than fiction. In 2002, an idealistic, first-term Newark City Councilman named Cory Booker entered the mayoral race against the flamboyant, 66-year-old, four-term incumbent, Sharpe James. Would that he had known what he was setting himself up for: The ensuing campaign, documented in microscopic detail by documentary filmmaker Marshall Curry’s Street Fight, erupts into a three-ring circus of larceny, intimidation and spurious accusations the likes of which are rarely seen this side of the Third World (or at least Chicago), including James’ allegations that Booker is white, Jewish and the pawn of conservative special-interest groups — no matter that, like James himself, Booker is a black Democrat. Yet what may trouble you most as you exit into the night after seeing Street Fight isn’t the vandalizing of Booker’s headquarters, the strong-arming of local merchants who dare to display Booker ?signage or even the possibilities of voter fraud, but rather the willingness of so many Newark residents to turn a blind eye.
Operating as a one-man crew, Curry gains fly-on-the-wall access to the Booker campaign while being treated as a fly in the ointment by James. And as we move toward Election Day, complete with celebrity endorsements from Spike Lee (in Booker’s corner) and Al Sharpton (for James), Street Fight amasses the cumulative tension of a crackerjack suspense thriller — by all means, if you don’t already know the outcome, restrain yourself from hopping on the nearest search engine. But what ranks Street Fight among the most scintillating of recent political documentaries is its steadfast refusal to take sides or play up the obvious David-vs.-Goliath parallels. Rather, Curry aspires to an even keel, pointing out that James himself was once a reformer who accomplished much progress for Newark, before poverty and crime rates went soaring and his office became mired in scandal. Curry likewise has much tough love for Booker, whose idealism may come at the expense of the streetwise savvy necessary to survive a Newark election.
Last month, Street Fight became one of the five nominees for this year’s Best Documentary Oscar, and, like Booker himself, it’s the clear underdog in a race against cuddly penguins, mutant fish, paraplegic rugby players and free-falling Enron executives. Curry’s film doesn’t have nearly as sexy a hook — it’s about the art and artifice of local politics, and that rarely sells tickets — and so it’s no real surprise that it’s only just now arriving in theaters. (It premiered on PBS in July of last year.) Still, this is classical activist filmmaking of the first order, a movie with the power to turn hearts, change minds and, just maybe, right the wayward course of an entire city.
DIRTY | Directed by CHRIS FISHER | Written by FISHER, GIL REAVILL and ERIC SAKS | Produced by ASH SHAH, DAVID HILLARY and TIM PETERNEL | Released by Silver Nitrate Releasing | At selected theaters
STREET FIGHT | Written, produced and directed by MARSHALL CURRY | Released by Marshall Curry Productions | At Laemmle Fairfax and Laemmle One Colorado