Screenplay : Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson (based on the novel by James Ellroy)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1997
Stars : Kevin Spacey (Jack Vincennes), Russell Crowe (Bud White), Guy Pearce (Ed Exley), James Cromwell (Dudley Smith), David Strathairn (Pierce Patchett), Kim Basinger (Lynn Bracken), Danny DeVito (Sid Hudgeons)
As I watched the credits rolling after "L.A. Confidential," I came to a wonderful and refreshing conclusion: Hollywood is still capable of making great films. I would never deny that a monumental amount of junk emerges from Hollywood's hallowed halls each year. However, every once in a while, the right people come together, all the pistons fire, and out comes a movie like this, which is destined to be one of the best, if not the best, of the year.
Based on the mammoth crime epic of the same title by James Ellroy, "L.A. Confidential" paints a colorful, textured, violent, and enthralling portrait of Los Angeles and its struggling police department circa 1953. While the citizens were still trusting the police force as honest and upstanding, the cops were learning the fine art of media control and public relations to cover its growing corruption. Because corruption was there, boiling and seething beneath a luscious, but very thin veneer.
"L.A. Confidential" gives us all the period detail to the last bit of minutiae, from the suits to the cars to the guns to the newspaper styles. The movie consciously evokes the film noirs of the 40s, with its dark edginess, conflicting characters, and focus on corruption and its effects on both good and bad men. In more ways than one, "L.A. Confidential" brings to mind "Chinatown," Roman Polanski's masterful 1974 ode to that same period. Director Curtis Hanson obviously studied up on the genre, because he works it like an old pro.
The story centers on three L.A. cops: Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), Bud White (Russell Crowe) and Edward Exley (Guy Pearce), all of whom are different in their personalities, styles, and procedures. Vincennes is a world-weary veteran who has forgotten why he wanted to become a cop, and he spends most of his time selling police stories to the local scandal sheet run by Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), and lending his consulting services to the good cop TV show, "Badge of Honor." He's not exactly a model policeman, but his greed only extends so deep.
Standing near the same ambiguous center, White is a hardened member of the detective squad, known more for his brawn than his brains. He isn't afraid to bend the rules, or in some cases, flat out break them, if he thinks it's in society's best interests. White also displays a serious weak spot for saving women. The first time we are introduced to him, he is taking pleasure in kicking the tar out of a wife-beater in his own front yard on Christmas Eve. Violence toward women is one thing he cannot tolerate.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is Exley, a youthful, bespectacled intellectual who begrudgingly spends most of his time behind a desk. Exley is a straight arrow through and through, unafraid to tell on any of his fellow officers, especially if it means he might get a promotion. The police commissioner, Dudley Smith (James Cromwell), doesn't hold much respect for Exley's rigidity when it comes to the rules. However, politics are politics, and if he can use Exley to the department's advantage, he will.
The movie starts out following these three cops on separate paths, but they are eventually brought together through a series of events that begins with the Nite Owl Massacre, which claims the lives of fifteen people in a late night diner. One of the victims happens to be a cop, White's old partner who was recently kicked off the force after he was ratted out by Exley for beating on some Mexican immigrants taken into custody.
This incident at the Nite Owl sets off a chain reaction of events that eventually involves Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn), a wealthy businessman who dabbles in high price prostitutes surgically altered to look like movie stars, Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), one of Patchett's prostitutes made up to look like Veronica Lake, and Sid Hudgens, the tabloid reporter. The investigation into the massacre leads to parallel and intersecting cases, and even digs up incidents from the past that were thought to have been closed. Some clues lead to dead ends, some lead to unexpected conclusions, some intertwine, and eventually they all come together into a smashing climax. Along the way, innocents are condemned and corruption abounds on all levels, some more obvious than others.
Curtis Hanson's previous directorial endeavors such as "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" and "The River Wild" were solid, effective films, but none of them could have prepared us for what he does here. Confidently wielding an unwieldy story, he strides through dozens of characters and subplots, and still makes sense of it all without losing the audience. Every scene and every line of dialogue is carefully designed for a purpose, and while the movie requires strict attention, it is not beyond the average moviegoer.
Hanson is greatly aided by his huge ensemble cast. Well-knowns such as Spacey, Basinger, and Cromwell play their parts to perfection, while Crowe and Pearce, two previously unknown Australian actors hiding behind effectual L.A. accents, give performances that assure them a bright future. Their characters are the deepest and most complex, mostly because our feelings for them change and evolve during the film. At one point, we are sure that Exley is the better cop, but near the middle we begin to despise him and look to White, and by the end they have both settled around the same level, each with his own faults and strengths.
To develop and manipulate characters in that manner is more of an accomplishment than it seems on the surface. In a market that is filled with either brainless shoot-outs or unreachable art films, "L.A. Confidential" falls into a needy space -- that narrow slot filled with intelligent films that are also entertaining on a visceral level. "L.A. Confidential" brings together everything that is great about the movies: a strong and believable sense of time and place, a potent theme, great characters, and an involving story that keeps our attention from the first frame. Without a single mis-step, this movie hits a bullseye in every target.
©1997 James Kendrick