Aaustralia is a nation of cops who believe they are larrikins. This mistaken belief has led us down many roads, many ending in massacres, deaths in custody, hotel prisons and little boat-shaped trophies with “I stopped these” on them. It has allowed a country of suburban letter-to-the-editor types to convince themselves that their innate bigotry, hatefulness and tendency towards bullying is nothing but the inevitable result of their being wild colonial boys. The “larrikin” is Australia’s boldest furphy.
No work of media has dissected this lie more thoroughly than Blue Murder, the 1995 miniseries about crooked cops and thuggish hoods following the gangster Neddy Smith (Tony Martin) and the mega-corrupt, mega-violent policeman Roger “The Dodger” Rogerson (Richard Roxburgh). These two men bounce off one another and the law amid the heroin-fueled Sydney gang wars of the late 70s and 80s.
Blue Murder arrived on Australian television on the heels of a decade of scandalous investigations into police corruption. It’s hard to imagine something like it getting the green light if the public’s opinion of the police hadn’t been as low as it was then. Director Michael Jenkins and writer Ian David pull no punches in depicting the police as malignant, unchecked psychopaths, somewhere between gangsters and neighborhood bullies, running Sydney like the untouchable sons of rich men.
Leading this pack of marauding jackals is Rogerson, played by Roxburgh as if he was gripping on to an electric fence and holding out his hand to slap you with the current. As The Dodger, Roxburgh weaves between glib murderousness and backslapping jocularity, Jaime Lannister by way of Sam Newman. He crackles with the privilege that Australia affords the tanned, blonde and empowered.
“The only thing between your average punter and total anarchy is somebody like me,” he cooly tells the audience, who, by that point, have already spent two hours watching him murder, torture and drunkenly fire off machine guns with his mates, all the while cackling like a hyena.
Neddy Smith becomes Rogerson’s foil, accomplice and lackey, and Martin’s mercurial performance is the (black) heart of the story. His lackadaisical narration of him steers us around the frantic collision of car chases, beatings and executions. “The thing you should know about Roger is, he’s a man of his word about him. He’s not much of a physical person, in far as giving you an even chance,” he says drolly in their first scene together, as we watch Rogerson prepare to bash him to a dribbling heap with the YellowPages.
The tightrope of camaraderie and menace the pair walk is kept taut by the jazzy confidence of the semi-improvised dialogue, which bops between bowl’s club banter and 10-tinny confessional. Corkers such as “Can Dolly Parton float?” and “If this is an idea, then Phar Lap’s a Shetland pony” crackle between talk of hits, threats and dodgy dealings. The lives of everyone involved is brilliantly summed up in one line: “I’m up to my bottom lip in shit.”
Roxburgh once told an interviewer that he and Martin could have performed standup as those characters (and the real Rogerson did later try his hand at standup with the likes of Chopper Read). It’s impossible not to notice how genuine their laughter is, even in scenes where they’re threatening to knock each other off.
Blue Murder brims with a punchy pacing that would be the envy of a bare-knuckle boxer. Here, Sydney heaves and wheezes with the long necks and ciggie butts of a million sour all-nighters, a windy leviathan of nastiness and back-alley dealings.
Almost three decades on, Blue Murder feels startlingly fresh: a vestigial flicker of an Australian telly and film renaissance that never quite was. The two 90-minute episodes evoke the worldbuilding of Altman (think McCabe & Mrs Miller), the irascibility of Cassavetes (think Husbands), and the stylized bravado of Scorsese (think Mean Streets or Casino). To borrow Smith’s summation of Rogerson: Blue Murder is a bastard of considerable conscientiousness. It’s a visceral skewering of Australian machismo, of Australian meanness.
When Rogerson winkingly asks Smith if he’s “a goody or a baddy”, we all know that there is no right answer. As Rogerson’s maniacal laughter washes over Smith’s stunned panic, we catch a glimpse of where the myth of larrikinism dumps us all: up to our bottom lips in shit.