A peek at director Ron Shelton’s resume would make for a quick dismissal of him as a sports guy — Bull DurhamWhite Men Can’t Jump and Tin Cup. But there’s always been a fleck-sized undertone of racial differences in much of his work, something he explodes with surprising skill in the swiftly moving police drama Dark Blue.

It’s no accident that Dark Blue is close in spirit to L.A. Confidential. Story credit here goes to James Ellroy, who wrote the novel on which 1997’s L.A. Confidential was based. Like that film, Dark Blue has labyrinthine, head-spinning webs of departmental corruption and deceit. It also has a similarly seamy slow-burn energy, charged by its narrative and thematic tie-ins with the 1992 Los Angeles riots and a dynamite lead performance from Kurt Russell.

Russell plays Eldon Perry, a weathered L.A.P.D. sergeant who’s able to reconcile his good-old-boy corruption as long as he can sell its merits to everyone else. Among the buyers are his new, green partner Bobby Keough (Scott Speedman) and their even dirtier supervisor Jack Van Meter (Brendan Gleeson, whose sneering is superb) for whom they do the legwork.

Perry’s mettle is tested by the brutal crime that opens the film — a robbery/homicide that claims the life of a police dispatcher. After he and Keough are put on the case, Perry discovers a connection to Van Meter. With a deputy chief (Ving Rhames) breathing down his neck, Perry must decide whether to pursue true justice or continue the cover-ups that have become second nature.

Dark Blue isn’t much of a mystery in that it’s explicit about Van Meter’s involvement mostly from the get-go. The question then becomes why Van Meter would assign his best cop to a case that would so easily expose him. In clumsier hands, that would never be resolved. But screenwriter David Ayer (Training Day) has such a great handle on all the characters that we see Van Meter’s manipulation of Perry has worked for years and he sees no reason it won’t now.

Dark Blue‘s greatest strength is in these characters, how impure their motives are and how smooth they are about their various plays for power. Ayer doesn’t flinch with terse dialogue and a handful of crackling confrontational scenes. The best involves Perry publicly chiding Keough in the stationhouse after he suggests Van Meter’s involvement. Russell plays it wisely, as a man who himself knows Van Meter’s involved, but makes a big production to shift guilt away from himself.

After a handful of throwaway performances, Russell gets this showcase role and runs with it. He effortlessly fuses together Perry’s cockiness, charm, bravado, rage and desperation. He’s a guy who plays hardball with everyone but himself, only because he knows he’ll probably strike out. Through it all, Russell allows us to connect with the character despite his reprehensible acts.

The movie is not without a few big stumbles. Its aggressively awful musical score, from the usually reliable Terence Blanchard, sounds at times like a bad remix of the Outback Steakhouse jingle. Plus, a major break allowing Perry to piece the puzzle together comes too easily and the love lives of four different characters overlap ridiculously. But its action climax is intense and exciting in all the right ways. And the resolution, though chatty, works on all levels of acting, theme and story.

Shelton, who already has proven himself as a master of the sports movie, has more cop movies on his docket, and if Dark Blue is any indicator, his new direction will prove just as fruitful.