L.A. Confidential (1997) / Thriller-Mystery
MPAA Rated: R for violence, nudity, sexuality, drug references, and language
Running Time: 138 min.
Cast: Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, James Cromwell, Kim Basinger, David Strathairn, Danny De Vito, Graham Beckel, Ron Rifkin, Paul Guilfoyle, Simon Baker
Director: Curtis Hanson
Screenplay: Brian Helgeland, Curtis Hanson (based on the novel by James Ellroy)
Review published February 7, 2007
Based on James Ellroy's novel, LA Confidential is a modern noirish tale of how police corruption and the flourishing of organized crime go hand in hand, as well as how public decisions are dictated by public image, strange bedfellows, and the allure of the Hollywood glamour industry. Many of the incidents and characters are based on real-life events that occurred in Los Angeles during the same period, including "goon squad" police tactics, brothels that catered to clients looking to make it with movie stars, and the feeding of information to entertainment sources looking to make a buck off of the town's seamy side.
The setting is the early 1950s, Los Angeles (of course), where we follow the exploits of several police officers, all motivated by different things, but they soon are united by a common cause. Ed Exley (Pearce. Rules of Engagement) is a green, but very ambitious police officer who desires strongly to follow in his father's footsepts by becoming a detective lieutenant, which he attains by taking partial credit for the infamous Nite Owl murders, where three men barge into a diner and kill all of the inhabitants inside, including a former police officer named Stensland (Beckel, Blue Streak) Stensland's former partner is Bud White (Crowe, The Quick and the Dead), a rough-and-tumble cop as loyal as they come, but also willing to do the things that Exley is not, namely, to cross over the line of the law to see that justice is served. In the mix is an old-time narc cop named Jack Vincennes (Spacey, Consenting Adults), who has been making extra bucks on the side as an informant for a tabloid publication named "Hush-Hush", while also serving as an advisor to the popular television program, "Badge of Honor". Their lives become entwined when various aspects of the "open and shut" Nite Owl case begin to unravel, leading the men to independently try to get to the bottom of just what happened on that night, the answers to which might lead to an exposure to people of power that are beyond their abilities to take down.
Although a great deal of Ellroy's novel had to be pared down in order to accommodate a feature length film, credit the screenwriting team of Brian Helgeland (Conspiracy Theory, The Postman) and Curtis Hanson (The Bedroom Window, The Silent Partner) for being able to tie up all of the loose ends of the original story and make it not only easy to understand, but also to deliver a powerhouse film in the process. With so many characters, plot turns, revelations, and more than a few subplots, it would have been easy to confuse the viewer, but thankfully, for those paying attention, it's far from convoluted. Hanson easily anticipates those times when character names or events may be forgotten, and he utilizes momentary flashbacks in order to make for easy recall, and it makes a world of difference. All the same, how much you get out of it will be greatly determined with how well you can pay attention; it's not the sort of film you can prepare a sandwich in the kitchen while it plays. Luckily, even those who admit to short attentions spans will likely be too reeled in to leave the screen. The adapted screenplay would rightfully scoop up the Academy Award.
Beautifully shot, consummately performed, and brilliantly edited, LA Confidential is brimming with professional confidence, with Hanson allowing for good character build up, plots that weave together without contrivance, and interactions among the characters that need little in terms of lengthy explanation -- we know what they're thinking without them needing to explain. The score by Jerry Goldsmith (First Contact, Chain Reaction) ranks among his very best, while the sleek cinematography by Dante Spinotti (Heat, Hudson Hawk) captures the era with grace and beauty, perfectly balanced with sumptuous lighting, top-notch costumes and make up, and impressive sets. This is how to produce a sprawling period piece with flair.
The casting is gutsy, putting two relatively unknown (at the time) Australian actors as the leads. Both Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe deliver splendidly, completely heroic and fascinating in roles that, on the surface seem pat, but both characters undergo subtle changes and maturation throughout the film. The casting of Kim Basinger (Final Analysis, Batman) is also a decided risk, as her previous work would suggest that she has gotten by mostly on her looks and very modest acting ability, but the role seems tailor-made for her, utilizing her strengths in being alluring yet vulnerable. She would win her first and only Oscar for her performance.
Not since Chinatown has a modern noir film been able to captivate on this level, and while it falls just short of being the artistic masterpiece that Roman Polanski had been able to deliver, it's difficult to imagine improving LA Confidential to make it any more engaging or satisfying. It's gutsy, gritty and perfectly paced, much like the best of the film noir classics that were being made during the era the film is set. In the end, it's really about how to tell a story that makes L.A. Confidential heads and shoulders above other cop thrillers of its era. One of the best films of the 1990s.
©2007 Vince Leo