Director Deon Taylor has been busy lately, previously helming this year's home invasion thriller The Intruder. For his second movie of 2019, Black and Blue, the filmmaker turns his attention to timely subjects of police brutality and corruption, and authority's at times tenuous relationship with minorities. Given the tragic events that have made real-world headlines over the past few years, there was potential here for a hard-hitting exploration of relevant themes, though Taylor falls a little short of his aspirations. Naomi Harris helps elevate Black and Blue beyond its genre trappings with a strong performance, but Black and Blue is a largely generic thriller.
In Black and Blue, Harris stars as Alicia West, an Army veteran who's now working as a rookie police officer in her hometown. Three weeks into her tenure, Alicia volunteers to ride along with Officer Deacon Brown (James Moses Black), as he patrols the streets at night. While on duty, Deacon and Alicia receive a call and head to an abandoned power plant, where narc Terry Malone (Frank Grillo) murders a drug dealer. Alicia, who recorded the incident on her body cam, becomes the target of a police hunt, as the crooked cops look to cover up the evidence before Alicia exposes them.
Written by Peter A. Dowling, Black and Blue is clearly trying to draw from real-life parallels in its depiction of the police force and their dynamic with underprivileged communities. On one hand, the creative team deserves credit for aiming a little higher and looking to be "about" something, but the approach is unfortunately lacking in subtlety and nuance. Though the likes of Grillo and Beau Knapp (who plays Malone's partner, Smitty) are convincing in villainous roles, their characters are very one-note, stereotypical "dirty cops" that don't add much to a classic Hollywood trope. Efforts made to flesh out their perspectives come far too late to make a meaningful impact (and perhaps reach a little too far to connect the film's setting with true events). The script instead prioritizes the conflict between the community's African-American residents and the police, overplaying the notion Alicia chose a "side" through her job.
Unsurprisingly, Harris is a strong anchor to hold Black and Blue down, carrying the film on her shoulders with a dedicated turn as Alicia. She makes for a compelling protagonist, easy to root for as she desperately fights for her life and tries to do the right thing. In addition to handling whatever action sequences come her way, Harris also establishes a nice rapport with Tyrese Gibson, who plays Milo "Mouse" Jackson. As Mouse, Gibson gives a refreshingly understated and grounded performance as someone caught in the middle of the craziness ensuing. As for the rest of the ensemble, everyone else here is serviceable, but nobody truly stands out. Actors like Mike Colter, Reid Scott, and Nafessa Williams make the most of their screen time, though they are saddled with predictable arcs.
For any shortcomings in the script, Black and Blue does deliver a positive message of striving to be part of the change and improving society. Arguably, its conveying of that sentiment is overly hopeful or naive (which the film is conscious of), but Black and Blue does earn points for not being overtly bleak. It's unlikely this will be the film that sparks a nationwide debate; it only skims the surface of its serious subject matter, and eventually devolves into a standard thriller, but it's clear Taylor has something to say and is passionate about the material. Black and Blue doesn't reinvent any wheels, though it remains watchable and is engaging enough through its sub two-hour runtime.
At the same time, Black and Blue is a tricky one to recommend, especially at this time of year when there's a mix of high-profile studio offerings and Oscar hopefuls hitting theaters. Despite its merits, it isn't on that level of quality, so it's probably going to slip under many viewers' radars as they look to keep up with other titles. But if someone has extra time, Black and Blue may be worth checking out; if not on the big screen, then it could make a solid rental on a rainy day.
Black and Blue is now playing in U.S. theaters. It runs 108 minutes and is rated R for violence and language.
- Black and Blue (2019) release date: Oct 25, 2019