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'Black and Blue' review: Topical thriller doesn't live up to its potential

Naomie Harris and Tyrese Gibson in "Black and

Naomie Harris and Tyrese Gibson in "Black and Blue." Credit: Sony Pictures/Alan Markfield

PLOT A rookie cop's body camera captures evidence of corruption and murder.

CAST Naomie Harris, Tyrese Gibson, Frank Grillo

RATED R (violence)

LENGTH (1:48)

BOTTOM LINE A topical thriller that doesn't live up to its potential.

"Black and Blue," a modestly budgeted but thematically ambitious crime-thriller, stars Naomie Harris as Alicia West, a cop working a beat in the seedier sections of New Orleans. The set-up is elegantly simple: Alicia inadvertently witnesses the murder of a young drug dealer at the hands of a corrupt detective. She also has the body-camera recording to prove it — if she can stay alive long enough to get it into the right hands.

What gives this story its topical crackle is the added factor of race. West is black, just like that young victim; the cop, Terry Malone (a greasy Frank Grillo), is white; and in post-Katrina New Orleans, the color lines are clearly drawn. West may be a product of the local housing projects but, thanks to her new uniform, her own community now considers her a traitor. Only her old friend Mouse (Tyrese Gibson), will prove to be an ally when things go south.

"Black and Blue" starts out by diving straight into touchy issues. Director Deon Taylor ("The Intruder") stages several tense, jittery encounters between pushy white cops and resentful black citizens. The very opening scene is of West's morning jog ending in a near-arrest by two colleagues. ("You matched the description of someone," one says, unconvincingly.) These scenes aren't exactly nuanced but they make their point: Every clash seems moments away from becoming another headline.

The movie also deserves credit for eschewing touristy Bourbon Street in favor of New Orleans' working-class neighborhoods. (The gloomy cinematography is by Oscar nominee Dante Spinotti, of "L.A. Confidential.") Somewhere around the halfway point, though, "Black and Blue," written by genre veteran Peter A. Dowling ("Flightplan"), abandons realism. The character of Darius, a fur-clad kingpin played by Mike Colter, is such a cartoon that he undercuts Harris' otherwise serviceable performance as West. The plot culminates in a last-ditch plan that beggars belief. By the time West begins speaking in hashtags -- "Be the change," she yells during the bullet-riddled finale – the movie has lost all credibility.

Maybe that was to be expected from a movie whose opening rap track sounds like Childish Gambino's incendiary "This is America" — but isn't. "Black and Blue" could have been a great little B-picture, something entertaining but also relevant and edgy. Instead, it's a near miss.

FOUR MORE

Female cops are still somewhat rare in the movies, just as they are in real life (They make up roughly 12% of America's local police, according to reports.) Here are four examples of leading ladies playing women in blue:

DESTROYER (2018) Nicole Kidman plays an LAPD detective who goes undercover in this brutal drama from Karyn Kusama. Kidman's use of prosthetics and weather-beaten makeup helped earn her a Golden Globe nomination.

HOT PURSUIT (2015) This buddy comedy featured Reese Witherspoon as an uptight San Antonio cop and Sofia Vergara as a woman about to testify against a criminal. Reviews were abysmal: The movie has a painfully low 7% rating on RottenTomatoes.

FARGO (1996) Frances McDormand won an Oscar for playing what might be the best-known female cop in the movies: Marge Gunderson, a Minnesota police chief tracking down some very nasty knuckleheads. The Coen brothers also won an Oscar for their screenplay.

BLUE STEEL (1990) Jamie Lee Curtis plays an NYPD rookie who shoots a criminal – but when his gun vanishes from the crime scene, she's accused of killing an unarmed man. It's one of many cult favorites from director Kathryn Bigelow ("Point Break," "Strange Days").

— RAFER GUZMAN

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