DAY EIGHT November 10, 2005
Christopher Fisher Gets DIRTY with Amoral Cop Drama
by Todd Gilchrist
"I believe that our institutions have failed us, and I believe this on a practical and fundamental level," says writer/director Christopher Fisher. "The tragedy is that within these institutions there are real people on both sides who are being destroyed."
Fisher is neither a politician nor a pundit, but ensconced both in obvious frustration over the increasing prevalence of corruption within law enforcement and a burgeoning career as a filmmaker, he turned his chagrin into celluloid with DIRTY--a taut, politically-charged tale of two former gang members turned cops trying to make it though a single day on the job. Clifton Collins Jr., the versatile star of such films as TRAFFIC and this fall's CAPOTE, plays Officer Armando Sancho, a former barrio boy who must circumnavigate a corrupt system, a crazy partner and his own personal demons in order to do his job. Cuba Gooding Jr.--in a performance that razes his nice-guy screen persona--plays Officer Salim Adel, a short-fused, trigger-happy cop who exploits the power of his position to unforgettable and inevitably self-destructive effect.
Fisher's previous credits include HILLSIDE STRANGLER and NIGHTSTALKER--pictures whose subjects chronicle ripped-from-the-headlines stories with style and ferocity. He credits his longtime collaborator, Ash Shah, with finding scripts that possess this irresistible relevance. "My producer seems to have his finger firmly pressed on the underbelly of the zeitgeist," Fisher observes. "This is my third film for him and, like the other ones, he came to me with the subject matter and gave me an opportunity." The director admits that the ideas he generates himself aren't quite as prescient. "Honestly, the stories I come up with on my own are not nearly as dark, and maybe that's why I haven't gotten any of those films off the ground," he jokes.
Meanwhile, police corruption is hardly a new cinematic subject, from 1973's SERPICO to 2001's TRAINING DAY--not to mention dozens upon dozens of others. But the director says that his particular choice of protagonists--two minorities and former gang members--offered a different perspective on a familiar tale. "This is definitely not unique subject matter, to say the least," Fisher says. "That was one of the challenges."
He observes that he went as far as to include early dialogue cues that address the narrative's recognizability, if for no other reason than to acknowledge that he knows as well as audiences that they may have seen some of this before. "One of the first lines in the film is a subtextual comment on that," Fisher says. "When the internal affairs cop leans out his window with a donut and says, 'I know, I know, it's a cliché, but it tastes so good,' I am referring to the dirty cop- L.A. subgenre--TRAINING DAY, DARK BLUE, THE SHIELD, CHINATOWN, L.A. CONFIDENTIAL--that has been played out."
"I was interested in telling this story through the eyes of a Mexican-American--Clifton Collins Jr.'s character--and not allowing the audience the easy connection of a 'good white guy' to anchor the story," he continues. "I tried to freshen up this genre by telling the story from a point of view that had not been used before."
While Collins Jr.'s character provides a conflicted moral center for Fisher's film, Cuba Gooding Jr. is DIRTY's wild card, offering an unrestrained, bravura performance that recalls the fiery intensity of Denzel Washington's Oscar-winning turn in TRAINING DAY. When asked how he detected that Gooding Jr. could overcome his illustrious back catalogue of rakish screen charmers, Fisher says that it was his leading man that did most of the convincing. "He approached me after reading the script," Fisher says. "On paper, the character was so amoral, so ruthless, so repugnant (that) I knew I needed someone who had an innate likeability, and Cuba was that guy."
"Straight up, the movie would not be watchable without Cuba Gooding Jr.," Fisher insists. "He made this movie. Period."
Beyond the two leads, however, this ensemble piece ultimately enlisted a veritable cross section of acclaimed character actors, which Fisher says came by exclusive virtue of the material itself. "The talent responded to the story, and my lack of talent could not dissuade them," Fisher demurs. Among the recognizable names who fill out the remainder of DIRTY's cast are Keith David (PITCH BLACK), Cole Hauser (PAPARAZZI), Gates McFadden (STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION), Khleo Thomas (ROLL BOUNCE), Chris Mulkey (RADIO) and rapper Wyclef Jean. "I was very lucky to get the cast I did," Fisher adds. "Everyone did it as a labor of love."
Filled with intense shoot-outs, double-, triple- and quadruple-crosses and enough profanity to make Shane Black blush, DIRTY doesn't seem like the type of film that would be characterized as a "labor of love." But for Fisher, that's exactly what the film was--a fact-based departure from the thrillers of his past work that seethed with the same anger that he himself feels. "As far as making it believable and realistic, well, I hope it is," he says, turning the question around on the interviewer. "Is it?" Given the febrile power of the characters, the relentlessness of the story and the depravity and cynicism of its themes, one most sincerely hopes not. Yet as a crime saga, an expose of police corruption and an unflinching depiction of life on the streets on both sides of the law, DIRTY is knockout entertainment.
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