Dark Blue is one of those totally happy surprises that moves so quickly and curves so sharply that it leaves this era's hyped critical hits looking like beached whales. It never ceases to be a rabidly involving L.A. cop movie; it never loses its fierce sense of humor. But it manages to say a lot more about race and class than Changing Lanes, about depression than The Hours, about fathers and sons and their surrogates than Road to Perdition or About a Boy, and about minority reports (and police ethics) than Minority Report.

Kurt Russell gives a performance full of gritty grandeur as a vigilante-style policeman. He starts out as slyly entertaining as Denzel Washington in Training Day. He ends up tapping infinitely deeper wells of truth, because director Ron Shelton and Training Day's own screenwriter, David Ayer, treat the character as a tragicomic hero, not a crowd-pleasing villain to be exploited and then slain.

The main plot line is simple: Russell's Eldon Perry Jr., an ace cop in the Special Investigations Squad, must investigate an awful massacre in a Korean-owned convenience store four days before he's due to make lieutenant. He's living in a beer-commercial version of a fool's paradise, convinced that his wife (Lolita Davidovich) still finds his macho bravado charming and that any up-and-coming young buck like his new partner (Scott Speedman) will hang on his every word of gutter wisdom.

Yet Eldon gradually senses that everything is going wrong. Even though his partner is the commander's nephew - Eldon himself is the son of the commander's partner and best friend - the younger man balks at committing the outright street executions that have become the squad's specialty. At a shooting review board, Eldon backs up his teammate's lie that he fatally shot a criminal whom Eldon actually brought down. A black deputy chief (Ving Rhames), intent on reforming the department, refuses to sign the majority report backing up Eldon and his partner; he plans to use this case to bring down the SIS and its commander (Brendan Gleeson).

The commander acts too jumpy at the threat, perhaps because he knows he's also responsible for the convenience store massacre. What caps things off - though neither Eldon nor the commander realize it - is that Eldon's partner has been sleeping with the crusading police chief's smart and gorgeous right-hand gal (Michael Michele).

This last subplot is tricky: The couple made a deal to have sex no-questions-asked - not even each other's names or what they do in the department. But Michele and Speedman mesh beautifully, and this twist poetically underlines the point of the whole movie. When they're between the sheets, the young cops think they can ignore their personal histories and their police work.

They learn as painfully as Eldon Perry does that the past crashes into the present, and professional life into the bedroom. Only a person who faces up to that home truth can win a shot at redemption. And because Eldon is such a creature of the LAPD, Shelton and Ayer are able to intertwine his plight with that of the force. Eldon's grandfather and father viewed themselves as Western gunslingers taking down bad guys by any means necessary. But those urban-frontier days are over, and even Eldon's commander knows it. Intent on accumulating wealth before he loses his clout, he uses a pair of unsavory parolees as his personal thieves and reduces Eldon to a cover-up artist.

When Eldon realizes how low he and the SIS have sunk, his revulsion is, paradoxically, glorious to see. I can't understand why Russell hasn't been considered a star - and actor - of the first rank. He has a distinctive, sensitivity-laced brashness; he's equally convincing in comedy, drama and action; and he plays well with others.

Maybe his performance in Dark Blue will earn him the recognition he's long deserved because it takes him to extremes - and Russell proves his mettle once again, rooting those extremes in a cogent personality. He uses his boundless energy as a performer to suggest that even when Eldon is cruising on his street rep he isn't satisfied with his lot. In an odd way, Russell grows more vigorous and inventive as Eldon becomes more confused and depressed. As the cop sorts out what's authentic and inauthentic in his professional and psychological makeup, Russell conveys the melancholy power that sometimes comes with knowing you've scraped rock bottom. It's hard to think of another male actor of his generation who could be at once so hard-boiled and emotionally transparent.

It's a feat that Shelton, his editor, Paul Seydor, and his cinematographer, Barry Peterson, pull off in their moviemaking, too. Their handling of the quadruple homicide at the convenience store - and the violence the SIS halts or perpetrates each day - is more harrowing because it's matter-of-fact. And when Eldon's story plays out in the midst of the riots that followed the not-guilty verdict for the cops who beat up Rodney King, they conjure an urban nightmare in broad daylight. Everything becomes simultaneously literal, visceral and metaphorical. It's a life-and-death collage of American race hatred, alienation and materialism gone wild.

The movie may be too unpretentious to get credit for executing the wiliest editorial structure since Shampoo. Just as Shampoo framed a Beverly Hills bedroom farce with broadcast reports of Richard Nixon's 1968 election, Shelton frames his police-disaster film with video images of King's beating and the subsequent trial. And just as Shampoo implicitly condemned its characters' complacency for making them complicit in a national disaster, Dark Blue suggests that accepting a tainted law-enforcement status quo paves the way for incidents like the King riots; hiding even a good department's pockets of graft and rot makes an open discussion of its strengths and faults impossible.

The cast is studded with electric turns; Gleeson and Davidovich are standouts among standouts. The movie starts swiftly and savagely, then gets more daring as it goes along, building to a climactic turnaround when Eldon delivers a messy mea culpa that would have taxed the talents of a foul-mouthed Frank Capra. Shelton and company make it all look easy. They leave you with a question: what's the current street slang for "Bravo"?

Dark Blue

Starring Kurt Russell, Ving Rhames, Brendan Gleeson, Scott Speedman and Michael Michele

Directed by Ron Shelton

Rated R

Time 118 minutes

Released by United Artists

Sun Score ****

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