Adapted from the 1990 novel of the same name by James Elroy, LA Confidential (#62 IMDb Top 250, 99% RT) is a period crime thriller set in 1950′s Los Angeles where Hollywood’s deceptive gloss is met with a deeply corrupted and dark underworld where even the cops are up to no good. If you haven’t seen the movie, I would recommend you to stop reading this review, as it contains slight spoilers, and run to the video store to buy or rent this gem!
Helmed by Curtis Hanson, this is the tale of three cops who are caught in the investigation of a grizzly shooting at a night dinner which progressively uncovers deeply entrenched and rampant corruption all around them. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is a homicide veteran, more interested in his cherished role as a TV show consultant than chasing real criminals. Vincennes, aka “Hollywood Jack” also routinely gets illicit cash hand-offs from Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), the editor for the tabloid Hush Hush Magazine. In exchange for cash and notoriety, Vincennes busts and arrests public figures in the middle of embarrassing acts that Sid carefully sets up. Straight arrow Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is a self-righteous cop who is willing to do anything to advance through the ranks of the LAPD. After receiving a promotion to Detective-Lieutenant for testifying against his fellow cops –almost causing Wendell “Bud” White (Russell Crowe) to lose his job– Exley becomes strongly isolated and resented by other cops. Finally, Bud White is a brutish, no-nonsense young police officer with a very short fuse and a seeping hate for anyone who beats women. He is unknowingly coerced and manipulated by Capt. Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) after the latter saves his job.
Nominated for 9 Oscars including Best Picture, LA Confidential was overcome by the Titanic phenomenon but this is not to say it is the lesser film, quite the contrary in fact. Superbly written, the narrative is deeply involving, dense and twisted, never telegraphing the sometimes very violent outcomes of the movie. Although you will need to pay close attention all the way through to fully comprehend the movie, the numerous subplots and twist and turns never feel like they are not fully part of the overall story. From the first instant, you are immersed into the atmosphere of 1950′s Los Angeles: the looks, tone and soundtrack of the movie hit the perfect notes in acclimating the viewer to the moral depravity of the people inhabiting the story. The occasional narration by Danny DeVito gives the film a feeling of old-time as well as provide some dark humor and cynicism.
The characters of the film are fascinating and more than half a dozen of them are fully fleshed out. This is unlike the vast majority of movies that don’t even bother fully developing even one or two of the main characters. Here, you have characters that are all flawed and have complex and sometimes hidden motives. It doesn’t become clear for quite some time who the heroes and villains of LA Confidential are. Bud White, Ed Exley or Jack Vincennes could easily be stereotypical villains in other more conventional movies. When we finally figure it out, we realize that our heroes are flawed: they are selfish, practical, disillusioned, and bitter but at the same time, deep inside, they still want to believe in being decent and virtuous policemen. The movie is driven by the constantly palpable tension between Exley and White. This eventually unleashes a violent outburst when White learns of a brief affair between Exley and Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), the woman White fell madly in love with.
The terrific ensemble cast is given substantial material to work with and every one of them delivers the goods. The casting of two then-unknown “Aussies” (Crowe is from New Zealand, Pearce from England) as the two leads was audacious and risky. It all worked out perfectly however as Russell Crowe pulls through an eye-opening performance as the brutish and self-loathing Bud White who strongly believes violence can fix anything. Guy Pearce is equally brilliant as Exley and he gives him that stuck-up boy-scout aloofness that we all find slightly unlikable. Kevin Spacey is his usual slick and smooth-talking self as Vincennes, a man who sees his own corruption scheme as a harmless game until someone dies because of it. The supporting cast is highlighted by the nuanced and ultimately creepy James Cromwell who is at his best as Captain Dudley Smith, Kim Bassinger, who won the Oscar for best supporting actress for her role in the movie as a high-end call-girl who looks like Veronica Lake, David Strathairn as her high-end pimp, and Danny DeVito as the sleazy journalist looking to uncover the next sensational headline.
A timeless and classy masterpiece of the nineties, LA Confidential is a troubling reminder of how captivating and intellectually satisfying a movie can be when a densely plotted narrative is flawlessly executed at every level.
Lesson of the Day: “Hold up your badge, so they’ll know you’re a policeman.”
Notes: Rated R for strong violence and language, and for sexuality. 138 min.