If you were to describe Curtis Hanson’s 1997 noir epic L.A. Confidential with a word like “safe,” I wouldn’t really argue. This is a film which might think that it’s being dangerous with its takes on police corruption and the artificiality of Hollywood, but I’m not sure it says very much that’s controversial or surprising. Even if it was safe enough to turn a nice profit if it made $65 million and garner a few Oscar nominations – both of which happened – there’s nothing wrong with that if the film is entertaining, and entertainment is something that Hanson knows all about.
Fresh off of the immense success of The Hand That Rocks The Cradle and the profitable The River Wild, Hanson chose to adapt James Ellroy’s sprawling, sun-drenched noir novel. In that vein, a lot of the credit on this film should go to screenwriter Brian Helgeland for shrinking the book into a 138-minute film. Today, in the post-Sopranos era, this book might have found life as a miniseries, or even a regular-old TV series (yes, it’s that long). The idea that it could be turned into a movie shorter than Titanic borders on the absurd.
The book’s cast of thousands is cut down to three leads and a number of supporting characters. The leads are three cops – played by Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, and Kevin Spacey – who are compromised in various ways from the start, and who become even more compromised over the course of the movie. A series of loosely connected cases bring them together and challenge them to change their ways.
There’s not a lot that’s surprising in this movie, but it is so effectively presented that it’s hard not to respect Hanson’s mastery of craft. The fantastic opening sequence, with narration from a crooked tabloid journalist (Danny DeVito), lays out the film’s thesis: the dishonest glamour of Hollywood encourages dishonest cops to police it. The remainder of the running time is spent either proving that thesis, or providing a good old-fashioned detective film. Every minute goes to one of those ends, and none goes to waste.
“Thesis” is appropriate because this movie lays out its positions as clinically as an academic paper. Real L.A. locations such as the Formosa diner are used to sell the “this was the real Hollywood” attitude on one side, and Hanson is unsparing with his violence in order to sell the “seedy underbelly” side. However, it’s a little too clinical in that the consequences seem weak: there isn’t much blowback to being corrupt in this film. The movie ends with the supposedly ironic proclamation that “Los Angeles will finally get the police force that it deserves,” which loses some of its ironic value because, well, the good guys don’t seem that bad.
The plot is so complicated that Hanson feels the need to have a long “let’s explain everything” dialogue scene at the end, but it never feels confusing. The film does a fine job of laying out its protagonists and its antagonists (in a film where everybody is this corrupt, phrases like “good guys” and “bad guys” seem inaccurate) and letting them bounce off of each other. Normally I might complain about a movie that uses the musical montage like this one does, but here it’s an effective use of time.
Kim Basinger is present to embody both sides: like her character in the film, Basinger was getting just slightly too old to be the sexpot, but her employers didn’t know of any other way to use her, and her sad eyes betray that she knows it. She’s not playing herself, but she’s playing so someone that she could have been, had her luck turned poor. Her performance, which won Best Supporting Actress, adds some needed heart to the methodical plot.
The fact that Basinger bears an uncanny resemblance to Veronica Lake was just a happy accident, as was the discovery of two previously unknown Australians to play Officer Bud White and Sergeant Ed Exley. This film made the careers of both Crowe and Pearce, and with good reason. Each man thinks that he’s in the right regardless of whether he’s doing something just or unjust, and regardless of whether the script delivers in convincing us of his argument, the actor is committed.
At the time of its release, many people (including the studio executives who were behind the movie) said that L.A. Confidential had no “stars” in it. That’s a little strange, given that Kevin Spacey already had an Oscar on his mantle for The Usual Suspects. But that’s what actors like Spacey, David Strathairn, and James Cromwell do: they don’t destroy the other actors in a scene with them. The same goes for future Mentalist Simon Baker and future Alias villain Ron Rifkin, both of whom got their respective “big breaks” by appearing in relatively small roles here.
Compared to its competitors for Best Picture in 1997, Titanic and Good Will Hunting, L.A. Confidential seems a bit slight. But it is good, solid studio filmmaking. It makes you laugh at the right times, delivers strong dramatic beats at the right times, and rounds everything off with an effective action climax. It’s not the great film about police corruption that it would like to be, but it’s perfectly good fun and endlessly watchable.
Reviewed by Mark Young