GANG IN BLUE is a made-for-Showtime Melvin & Mario Van Peebles father-son directorial collabo from 1996. Mario plays Rhoades, a righteous cop surrounded by corrupt racists in a secret cop gang called The Phantoms. Please think of these “Phantoms” as dudes in white ghost hoods, not purple tights and skull rings. Their only uniform, though, is their regular police one or their tattoos or their softball jerseys and jackets, ’cause their softball team is also called The Phantoms. There must be some naive soul on the force who sees the tattoos and thinks “Geez, those guys are really into softball.”
Rhoades talks about hiring diversity and minority policing of minority neighborhoods while his co-workers are talking about “ching-chong” and “homeboys” and “ooga booga” and “the jungle” and calling people “animals” like Trump always does. His presence fucks everything up when they go to shake down an illegal casino. Despite all the anti-racism talk the only Asian we see after these stereotypical gangsters is a thickly accented officer at headquarters who’s kind of a doofus.
Melvin acts in this too, not as his dad, but his best friend and mentor Andre, who is still on the force and knows how it goes and tries to get him to keep his head down. But it’s cool to see them hanging out.
The official leader of the Phantoms is Lieutenant Eyler (J.T. Walsh, TEQUILA SUNRISE, RED ROCK WEST), who tries to be a responsible and moderating force even though he’s a murderer. For example he says “Hey! We don’t use language like that in the department,” when one of his buddies loudly uses the n-word at a funeral. He’s no better of a person, he just tries to make them be subtle before they get busted by a grand jury. But the more dominant force is hot-headed Moose, played by Stephen Lang (BAND OF THE HAND, MANHUNTER, EYE SEE YOU, AVATAR, CONAN THE BARBARIAN, DON’T BREATHE) with an impressive flat top and looking more like Vince McMahon than I’ve ever seen him. He’s the one who tries to take ex-Marine new recruit DeBruler (Josh Brolin, HOLLOW MAN, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, AMERICAN GANGSTER, W., JONAH HEX, TRUE GRIT, OLD BOY, SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR, SICARIO) under his racist wing. They go on patrol and DeBruler shows off his willingness to beat up random black and Hispanic dudes as well as his knowledge of degrading racist routines to perpetrate on citizens.
When Rhoades’ partner (Zach Grenier, J. EDGAR, ROBOCOP) gets killed, Rhoades schemes to get the new guy as his replacement to both keep him away from the bigots and have a guy he knows isn’t part of their inner circle yet. Usually it’s a great tragedy that must be avenged when a cop’s partner dies, but in this case the prick was trying to set him up to get killed and it backfired. (The Phantoms have a viking funeral for him, though.) Anyway they do a patrol together and it briefly seems like there’s gonna be RUSH HOUR jokes when Rhoades says “You like Garth Brooks, I like Snoop Dogg.”
Rhoades has a thing for an ex named Anita (Cynda Williams, MO’ BETTER BLUES) who’s an FBI agent. At first his interest seems only personal, but we learn that he’s been trying to get the FBI to help with this Phantoms shit. Still, he takes her to a rooftop they used to hang out on back in the day and makes a comment about “enjoying the view” when she’s on the ladder above him. This kind of stuff is so dated now! It comes off as smooth instead of crude, and she seems to be charmed by it, not uncomfortable, but that’s because he’s Mario Van Peebles. Fellas, keep in mind that you are not Mario Van Peebles.
There is a MAJOR TWIST when Anita goes home to her lover… fuckin DeBruler. There’s a brief tension when we don’t know if she doesn’t know she’s dating a racist or if he’s another agent working undercover for her. Luckily it’s the second one. It’s kind of a cool Brian-O’Conner-for-racism-instead-of-street-racing thing, but Rhoades finds out soon and I think it’s a little early to defuse the “I chose the racist guy as my partner” tension and just switch it to “we like the same lady” tension.
Mario is always solid as a handsome, square-jawed hero, and his calm in this nest of white supremacist vipers is admirable. These fuckin guys are making banana jokes and he pretends like they’re just joshin, gives them the black power fist, says stuff like “We’re goin on soul patrol” and “right on brotha stay black!” to amuse himself. It’s also cool to see Brolin in this when he was just starting to break into the world of grown up movie acting (he had just done FLIRTING WITH DISASTER) but getting to do both the scary asshole cop and the hero roles that he’s so good at now.
I think the absence of any subtlety in their racism makes it feel like too much of an exaggeration, though. Not only do these guys beat up minorities for fun and keep souvenirs in a secret clubhouse with Nazi and Confederate flags hanging next to girly pinups and crime scene photos, they just constantly and openly say racist shit knowing they can get away with it if they smile. There’s not one who listens to Snoop instead of Garth and thinks he’s not racist. There’s not one with other, non-evil interests. They’re just detestable guys with nothing on their minds but doing racism.
The screenplay is by Rick Natkin & David Fuller (THE TAKING OF BEVERLY HILLS). It’s apparently inspired by real cases of “gangs in blue” and (like POSSE) has text at the end to tell you it’s real. But I think the most resonant part is more of a throwaway joke scene where Rhoades storms into a house and terrorizes a white stoner couple, yelling and shoving and demeaning them before finding some joints on the guy and acting like that makes them garbage people. It turns out Rhoades is friends with the mother and was asked to do this as a Scared Straight type thing for her daughter. But before that we see some middle class white kids being treated exactly how young black men often are. The racial switcheroo is something I can’t remember seeing before. There are definitely some white people who should see that and see how it makes them feel.
This is the only one the Van Peebles family directed together. Melvin hadn’t directed a feature since IDENTITY CRISIS seven years earlier. For Mario it followed NEW JACK CITY, POSSE and PANTHER, which was his main period of cultural relevance, I guess. It’s competent on all levels except for some awkwardly edited shootouts. The well-meaning but broad commentary on racism is pretty much in line with their other work, if not their best. They do deserve some credit for getting Lang, Walsh and Brolin all together as cops and for being one of the movies that treats Mario as a movie star. There should probly be more of those.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.