It seems like director Deon Taylor might be the only filmmaker actively keeping the mid-budget adult thriller alive in this age of extinction. Plus, he’s prolific: His topical corrupt-cop drama “Black and Blue” is his second 2019 film, arriving just a few months after his surprisingly entertaining and campy home invasion horror thriller “The Intruder.”
Taylor’s work is broad melodrama; subtle it is not. But he has a knack for efficiently executing a killer premise, and he works with excellent cinematographers. Daniel Pearl, who shot the original “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” lensed “The Intruder,” and Dante Spinotti, the legendary director of photography who shot the likes of Michael Mann’s “Heat,” is appropriately behind the camera for the cops and dealers tale that is “Black and Blue” (he previously worked with Taylor on 2018’s “Traffik”).
Set in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, the contained chase film follows a female police officer, Alicia West (Naomie Harris), who has captured an officer-involved shooting on her body camera. As she tries to make her way back to her precinct to upload the footage and enter it as evidence against the cabal of cops murdering their informants, Alicia has to dodge both the black folks in the neighborhood who are suspicious of her uniform, and the boys in blue who can’t be trusted. Think Walter Hill’s “The Warriors,” but with a lone woman trying to cross town while dodging gangsters and law enforcement.
Taylor’s film uses the current news moment to play with the idea of being watched, and to underscore the power of images in pursuit of truth and justice. It reminds us we live in a “pics or it didn’t happen” world, where video (whether bodycam or viral) has the power to condemn or exonerate. This is a point Taylor drives home with visual storytelling. As Alicia faces her foe, Malone (Frank Grillo), during a climactic confrontation, smartphones capture the showdown. Taylor’s camera picks out images of graffiti eyes looming down on them like silent witnesses. It’s a brutally obvious metaphor, but Taylor makes the effort to show it, not tell.
Both Grillo and Harris are powerful actors, and Taylor unleashes them in a way they don’t often get to do. Tyrese Gibson and Mike Colter, who play Alicia’s reluctant ally Mouse and a drug kingpin, respectively, feel miscast. Colter, who can’t hide the inherent decency he projects, would have excelled in Gibson’s role, which is a bit of a stretch for him, while Gibson would have appropriately stunted as the flamboyant, sadistic gangster.
“Black and Blue” is big and broad. There is no stone unturned, no symbol unexploited, and the emotional tenor is at an 11. It’s melodrama for sure, and there’s absolutely no chance of interpreting his film differently than the way he intended, for better or for worse. Too late in the game, Peter A. Dowling’s script overreaches, trying to connect the corruption to disasters like Hurricane Katrina and federal neglect. They don’t quite pull that one off, but damned if the rest of this lean, mean thriller isn’t exceptionally effective.