Carl Franklin’s movie adaptation of Devil In A Blue Dress, based on the 1990 Walter Mosley mystery novel that first introduced readers to the loungy rhythms of WWII vet and amateur sleuth Ezekiel ”Easy” Rawlins, is respectful with a capital R. It’s also nice with a capital N — the kind of earnest production that reflects a lot of time spent in photographic archives researching how the dresses, automobiles, shops, and nightclubs looked in 1948 on Los Angeles’ Central Avenue, then the pulsing heart of the city’s black community. Denzel Washington, that handsome, hardworking man who specializes in portraying dignity and inner resources, plays Easy. Jennifer Beals, who specializes in ethereal sirens who have a taste for danger, plays the title character, a slinky heap of trouble called Daphne Monet. Franklin, who demonstrated his admirable substance with his debut feature One False Move (and later with the critically acclaimed HBO mini-series Laurel Avenue), wrote and directed. Everything is aces about this lineup’s pedigree. But Devil never lets loose. It’s a jazzy composition about sex, sleuthing, corruption, race, and cheap liquor that’s a half step out of tune.
And the hell of it is, you’re primed to root for this classic private-eye setup, the story of a fella who shambles into trouble just ’cause he needs a job. Easy got himself a medal in the war and a neat little bungalow with a garden on the GI Bill, but then he loses his job as an airplane mechanic and the mortgage is due. So when a shady fixer called Albright (Tom Sizemore) shows his white face in Easy’s black drinking haunt, looking for someone who can track down Daphne, Rawlins takes the dough and starts poking around.
What he steps into is corruption and danger, murder and blackmail. But Franklin shows us this landscape as if we’re on a bus ride through an unfamiliar part of town and he doesn’t want to disturb — or offend — the locals. He cools Mosley’s hot spots to a sedate lukewarm; Franklin might as well be a sociologist studying ”trends and conflicts in postwar urban Negro culture” rather than igniting those trends and conflicts — the very substructure that makes Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series so fascinating — into something that grabs our attention. And, I’m sorry to say, he gets no particular assist from Washington, who for now may have played one guy-with-guts-of-fire- beneath-that-quiet-facade too many.
In contrast, the imp you’re likely to remember in Devil (no, not Beals, who is alluring indeed in a number of blue dresses but stays more a symbol of racial barriers than a fully drawn character) is Easy’s troublemaking friend Mouse, played by Picket Fences’ Don Cheadle. With his slick duds, gold teeth, and amoral purchase on the world, Mouse has a fine time being bad — robbing, killing, whatever it takes. But he’s also a loyal friend of Easy’s from way back, with his own cockeyed sense of honor. And whenever he appears (usually cracking jokes or threatening to pop off like a fancy firecracker), Devil gives off a hint of the heat and atmosphere it could have been generating all along, without disturbing the neighbors. C