Directed by Curtis Hanson
A Warner Bros. film
Stopreading. Put this review on hold until after you've seen L.A. Confidential. No, wait. Stick around until the end of this paragraph. It's not that I'm planning to give away plot twists--as in, "She has a penis!" It's simply that I don't want to orient you. I want you to see the film as I did, with no expectations and no idea who's the hero, who's the villain, or even what's at stake. L.A. Confidential is that rare mainstream cop thriller that refuses to telegraph its outcome in the first 15 minutes or, for much of its running time, to tell you how to feel about its protagonists. So log off, see the movie, and come back.
Are you back? My hunch is that Curtis Hanson, once a craftily offbeat writer-director who found the beat in a big way and made those thumpingly predictable blockbusters The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992) and The River Wild (1994), consciously set out to liberate himself from Hollywood hackery. He discovered the perfect project in James Ellroy's punchy, labyrinthine crime novel, one of the few from the last decade that doesn't feel as if it was written expressly to be filmed. The story isn't entirely fresh. It's the old load of subterranean conspiracies and climactic rat-a-tat--with a new, post-Rodney King acknowledgment that white cops who rough up minority suspects are the rule, not the exception. But Hanson's way of telling the story catches you off-guard. He makes the familiar unfamiliar.
In part, he does it with casting: Of the triptych of leading men, not one is traditional movie-hero material. The closest to a "name" of the three is Kevin Spacey as Jack Vincennes, also known as "Hollywood Jack." Vincennes works Narcotics and also serves as technical adviser for a Dragnet-like TV show called Badge of Honor. He isn't a monster, but he has almost no scruples; he's an unabashed fame whore.
Jack routinely pockets cash from Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), the film's occasional narrator, a reporter for Hush-Hush magazine and a fiendish imp out of Frank Gifford's nightmares: Hudgens sets up public figures with drugs or prostitutes, then calls in Vincennes to make the bust and pose for pictures. Spacey is disconcertingly breezy. The actor has been chewing the scenery for so long--brilliantly--that I wasn't sure he had this kind of jaunty star turn in him. Better yet, he brings off the burgeoning of Jack's conscience with exceptional subtlety, beginning with the man's embarrassment at shaking hands at a party with a dupe he once collared and ending with his horror at a slaying he has inadvertently abetted. Still, he's too opaque to serve as a moral center, and besides, I haven't forgiven him yet for decapitating Gwyneth Paltrow in Seven.
The other two leads, Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, are even tougher to get a handle on, although both actors (both Australian, which you'd never guess) will be overnight stars. As Detective Bud White, Crowe is a beefy thug with a compulsion to rough up wife-beaters. Oddly tender, he nonetheless takes his Galahad act to the point of psychosis, dashing off with gun cocked the instant he hears of a damsel in distress. He doesn't think twice about blasting a crater in an ostensibly guilty suspect, planting a weapon on the man, and claiming self-defense.
White's nemesis, Ed Exley (Pearce), is everything we admire in a cop--in theory. He takes no bribes, vows never to plant evidence or to shoot hardened criminals instead of arresting them, and single-handedly dynamites the "blue wall of silence" when police are caught beating the hell out of a group of Latino suspects. But Pearce makes Exley a stuck-up, repressed little prig who issues orders wearing an all-purpose smirk on his rigidly chiseled face. Worse, his snooty righteousness is tinged with opportunism: He's willing to make deals with superiors in return for promotions.
The plot--which turns on the arrest of a mobster kingpin (Paul Guilfoyle), a massacre at a diner, and a group of call girls surgically altered to resemble movie stars--is almost too diffuse to synopsize. Much of the fun comes from finally learning which piece fits where.
Lacking heroes, villains, and a moral compass, the first two-thirds of the film leaves you adrift, which means that Hanson and his co-writer, Brian Helgeland (Conspiracy Theory) have to absorb you with the force of their storytelling. The film opens with DeVito delivering a sardonic ode to L.A. that captures both the gleaming surface and the underlying rancidity. As filmed by Dante Spinotti, L.A. Confidential conjures up those racy old Avon or Pocket Books pulp covers--film noir but with colors that are lurid and deep--and comments on them, too. The detectives pose for flashbulb pictures beside handcuffed suspects or scenes of carnage, their hats rakishly tilted. In this L.A., men and women dreaming of fame arrive on the bus to be instantly victimized by the ones who got there first.
Perhaps White's relationship with Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), a prostitute who's dyed and coifed to resemble Veronica Lake, is a tad moist, but the actors' physical rapport is sensational. You can believe that White would open himself up to this bedraggled blond princess, admitting, "I'm just the guy they bring in to scare the other guys." And Basinger, a cool customer, has never looked more comfortable with another actor, not even Alec Baldwin. As her millionaire pimp, an operator called Pierce Patchett, David Strathairn does a classic detective-movie turn: sleek, unruffled, every motion cagily deliberate. The man has purged himself of all surface emotion.
Hanson co-wrote the underrated White Dog (1982) with Sam Fuller, and there's a touch of Fuller in this film's lugubrious trashiness. At two-and-a-quarter hours, the picture is too long, and not exactly winged. But just when you start to get impatient with the plodding, one-thing-after-another style of narration, there's a shocker that blows you into the movie's last act, and then a scene in which a couple of former antagonists figure out what stinks and join forces in an abandoned motel to stave off an army of bad guys. It's a virtuoso shootout, a riot of angles--the villains depicted in whispers, scudding shadows, flashes of body parts. Bullets explode in shards of glass and light, bringing death in chiaroscuro. And L.A. Confidential, with its divergent plot strands, rockets to cop-movie heaven.