L.A. Confidential (United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Crooked cops. The mystery and allure of Hollywood in the '50s. Death, double-crossing, and secret alliances. Paparazzi waiting to get that one breakthrough picture. These are just some of the elements that make Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential one of the most exhilarating noir thrillers to reach the screen in recent memory. With a script that pays homage to the films of the '40s and '50s and may remind some viewers of the likes of Chinatown, L.A. Confidential proves that every period piece thriller doesn't have to go the way of Mulholland Falls.

It's 1953, and the City of Angels is in the grip of an unprecedented wave of violence. Cops on the take turn their backs on crimes. The jailing of a major mob boss leaves a vacuum of power that leads to a turf war. Then comes the Night Owl Massacre, where six victims (including an ex-cop) are brutally gunned down at the Night Owl Café. The police begin routine investigations, but it quickly becomes apparent that this is no ordinary multiple homicide.

There are three cops on the job. The first, Bud White (Russell Crowe), is a "muscle" guy who believes that violence solves almost everything and is willing to bend (or even break) the rules to obtain results. The second, Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), is the kind of officer who prefers the spotlight to a down-and-dirty lifestyle. He's the high-profile technical advisor to the hit TV series, Badge of Honor, and has a clandestine agreement with the editor (Danny DeVito) of Hush Hush magazine, a sleazy tabloid that publishes photos and stories showing Jack arresting celebrities in compromising positions. Finally, there's Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), a by-the- book cop who thinks he can rise through the ranks without resorting to Bud's boorish methods. Obviously, the tactics used by these three differ greatly, but, as they delve deeper into the murky mysteries of the L.A. police force, it becomes clear that their survival depends on working together.

The difference between L.A. Confidential and numerous other, more routine films of the genre begins with the script. Smart, insightful, and consistently engaging, Hanson and Brian Helgeland's faithful adaptation of James Ellroy's novel is a real treat for anyone who views film as a medium for both art and entertainment. The movie is filled with small twists and turns, but not so many that the plot becomes difficult to swallow or to follow. The subplots - and there are several - are as well-developed as the main story, and the supporting characters are presented as more than mere colorful misfits decorating the background.

Atmosphere is another of L.A. Confidential's strengths. This is Technicolor noir - a film made in color that has black-and-white sensibilities. Like Devil in a Blue Dress, this movie proves that multi- hued film stock does not automatically hamstring such a production. And, while the Los Angeles of L.A. Confidential may not accurately reflect the real city during the '50s, it nevertheless represents what we expect Hollywood to have been like, from the glitzy buildings to the cool-but-beautiful femme fatales and the sure-handed, silent men.

The three leads give strong performances. Spacey's Jack is cocky and confident, Crowe's Bud is brimming with tightly-controlled anger, and Pearce's Ed is caught between his towering ambition and his desire to do the right thing. It's interesting to note that two of the three main actors in this distinctly American tale are Australian. Despite having appeared opposite Denzel Washington in Virtuosity, Crowe is best known for roles in the likes of Proof and Romper Stomper. Pearce's big break came when he cross-dressed in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. It's worth noting that both actors have perfected their American accents to the point where it's virtually impossible to detect a down under twang. Meanwhile, the supporting performers include James Cromwell as the chief of police, Kim Basinger as the woman torn between Ed and Bud, and David Strathairn as a high-class pimp.

It takes L.A. Confidential nearly two and one-half hours to spin its tale, but the time passes remarkably quickly. There's hardly a wasted moment in the entire movie, and director Hanson (whose previous credits include The Hand that Rocks the Cradle and The River Wild) maintains tight control of every scene. Lately, it seems that film noir has become the province of independent productions. As a result, it's refreshing to see a big-budget, studio effort of this sort that does nearly everything right. L.A. Confidential is likely to be one of the best offerings of the early Autumn.

L.A. Confidential (United States, 1997)

Ranked #7 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1997
Run Time: 2:20
U.S. Release Date: 1997-09-19
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1