Fascinated by the spectacle of fallible men and fallen women trapped in a corrupt and heartless world that's too cold to care, filmmakers in every generation have never stopped reinventing film noir. From 1940s classics like "Out of the Past" (1947) through the likes of "Kiss Me Deadly" (1955), "Point Blank" (1967), "Chinatown" (1974) and "Body Heat" (1981), each decade has taken its own kind of brooding look at what goes down at the dark end of the street.
"L.A. Confidential," with an exceptional ensemble cast directed by Curtis Hanson from James Ellroy's densely plotted novel, looks to be the definitive noir for this particular time and place. A dark, dangerous and intoxicating tale of big trouble in paradise, smartly done with the blackest possible humor and names like Kevin Spacey, Kim Basinger and Danny DeVito, it's conspicuously contemporary both in its attitudes and its willingness to bend the rules of the game absolutely as far as they will go.
Ostentatiously cynical, hyper-violent, dripping with attitude, "L.A. Confidential" holds nothing sacred. Its intricate plot is so nihilistic and cold around the heart, its nominal heroes so amoral, so willing to sell out anyone and everyone, that the film is as initially unnerving as it is finally irresistible. A cocktail of diverse elements first shaken and then stirred, it takes pride in confounding expectations and leaving us as surprised as its characters by twisting turns of events.
From top to bottom, "L.A. Confidential" enjoys playing around with these notions of appearance and reality. It presents a fearfully corrupt police force the world thinks is a model of decorum, characters who believe in "doing what they have to do for justice" no matter how savage and even murderous their acts may seem, all operating in a city that likes to pretend it's paradise on Earth when it's really seething with pervasive corruption. Welcome to sunny Los Angeles in the year 1953.
This theme begins with the opening sequence, cheery promotional films of the Southland counterpointed by a wised-up and sarcastic narration. "Life is good in Los Angeles," sneers Sid Hudgens (DeVito). "At least that's what they tell you."
Hudgens ought to know. As the energetic editor of Hush-Hush, as in "off the record, on the qt and very hush-hush," always on the lookout for "prime sinuendo," he specializes in running scandalmonger stories like "Ingenue Dykes in Hollywood." Hudgens' monologue not only sets the tone for "L.A. Confidential," it also provides crucial background information: With the removal of major mobster Mickey Cohen, the L.A. crime scene is rudderless and up for grabs and 25 pounds of pure heroin have just gone missing.
Next on the scene, introduced one by one on Christmas Eve, are the three LAPD cops who are the film's protagonists. That night turns out to be crucial for each, involving them in incidents that have implications that gradually play out in bloody and unexpected ways.
Officer Bud Wilson (Russell Crowe, the Australian star of "Romper Stomper") is first up, a relentless and unsmiling one-man wrecking crew with an inflectionless voice and an eagerness to turn psychotic to protect women in jeopardy.
On Christmas Eve, Wilson meets the beautiful but troubled Lynn Bracken (Basinger), a vision in a black hooded cape with white trim, who immediately lets him know he's got cop "practically stamped on his forehead." With chitchat like that, we know they'll be meeting again.
Sgt. Jack Vincennes (Spacey), a.k.a. "Hollywood Jack" and "the Big V," is a show-biz cop with the cushy job of technical advisor for the mock-"Dragnet" TV series "Badge of Honor." A smoothly corrupt operator who smiles easily but not openly, Vincennes does not disappoint the superior who tells him, "I doubt you've ever drawn a stupid breath in your life. Don't start now."
Vincennes spends his Christmas Eve in one of his frequent collaborations with Hudgens, busting two young contract players for drugs in exchange for a cash payoff and prominent mention in Hush-Hush's next cover story, "The Movie Premiere Pot Bust." Oh, the price of fame.
Ed Exley (Australian Guy Pearce), the son of a martyred cop and about to be made lieutenant, seems the likeliest good guy as a believer in helping people and an enemy of corrupt policing. But the aftermath of a police riot he gets caught in on Christmas Eve shows him to be smug and priggish with an eye for human weakness, a cold-hearted and manipulative careerist who doesn't care what he has to do to get ahead.
None of these men is an obvious hero, and each has enough willingness to transgress conventional morality to have made him a villain in other times and other films. If they're knights, and they certainly don't seem to be, their armor is at best seriously tarnished. When one of them is told, "Don't start trying to do the right thing, you haven't had the practice," it's advice they could all take to heart.
With all this as backdrop, "L.A. Confidential" kicks into gear with a case big enough to involve the entire police department: the coffee shop shooting deaths of six people, including a policeman, that the press dubs "The Nite Owl Massacre."
Heading the investigation is Capt. Dudley Smith ("Babe's" James Cromwell), an unflappable veteran with a lilting way of calling everyone "boyo." Eventually involved as well are crafty Dist. Atty. Ellis Lowe (Ron Rifkin) and Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn), a mysterious Mr. Big that Hudgens characterizes with typical brio as "a powerful behind-the-scenes strange-o."
Diverse as they sound, all these strands and characters eventually come together as smoothly as the finish on the film's vintage automobiles. Ellroy's nearly 500-page novel has so much plot, in fact, that the author thought it was his least likely book to be filmed. But co-screenwriters Brian Helgeland and Hanson have expertly extracted the essence of the proceedings and boiled them down to a concentrated screen story where appearances are deceptive and nobody gives any information away.
Director Hanson has already demonstrated a command of narrative drive in previous work like "The River Wild" and "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle," and "L.A. Confidential's" clean, relentless storytelling sense, its ability to draw us in while always playing fair with plot details, is its quintessential asset.
Following right behind is strong ensemble acting. Spacey is the essence of corrupt charm, and Basinger provides the film's emotional center as the world-weary femme who's been around more blocks than the Thomas Guide. "L.A. Confidential's" nerviest and most successful decision was using the unknown faces of Crowe and Pearce as two of its key L.A. cops. Anyone who remembers Pearce as the youngest and most flamboyant drag queen in "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" will be impressed at the transformation.
In its locations, its look and its period soundtrack, "L.A. Confidential's" passion for authenticity has paid off. L.A. native Hanson and cinematographer Dante Spinotti opted to shoot in venerable spots like the Formosa Cafe and Hollywood's Frolic Room, and production designer Jeannine Oppewall, set decorator Jay R. Hart and costume designer Ruth Myers have made sure everything else looks right.
The only potential audience drawback "L.A. Confidential" has is its reliance on unsettling bursts of violence, both bloody shootings and intense physical beatings that give the picture a palpable air of menace. Overriding that, finally, is the film's complete command of its material. "L.A. Confidential" believes in itself because its creators got drawn into its wild story, and what an adventure that turns out to be.
* MPAA rating: R for strong violence and language and for sexuality. Times guidelines: bloody shootouts and brutal beatings.
Kevin Spacey: Jack Vincennes
Russell Crowe: Bud White
Guy Pearce: Ed Exley
James Cromwell: Capt. Dudley Smith
David Strathairn: Pierce Patchett
Kim Basinger: Lynn Bracken
Danny DeVito: Sid Hudgens
Regency Enterprises presents an Arnon Milchan/David L. Wolper production, released by Warner Bros. Director Curtis Hanson. Producers Arnon Milchan, Curtis Hanson, Michael Nathanson. Executive producers David L. Wolper, Dan Kolsrud. Screenplay Brian Helgeland & Curtis Hanson, based on the novel by James Ellroy. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti. Editor Pete Honess. Costumes Ruth Meyers. Music Jerry Goldsmith. Production design Jeannine Oppewall. Art director Bill Arnold. Set decorator Jay R. Hart. Running time: 2 hours, 16 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.