Movie Review: "L.A. Confidential"
Length: 138 minutes
Release Date: Sept. 19, 1997
Directed by: Curtis Hanson
Stars: 4 out of 5
Once upon a time, there were three cops: a brutal one, a sleazy one, and one who did everything by the book. Together they lived in the magical land of Los Angeles in the 1950s, where they fought crime and drank their bourbon neat as befits gumshoes in the largely imaginary gritty noir of their fictional realm.
All of a sudden, what intruded on the Dashiell Hammett world was but an honest-to-goodness murderer, and not only that, this person was a demented serial killer! The three dicks knew that if they wanted to make any headway against the murder-crazed lunatic, they were going to have to set aside their differences and work together to clean up the dirty, dirty streets of the cruel city.
The straight shooter Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) knew that despite his status as the fair-haired boy of the force, he lacked the experience, moxy, and pluck to bring down a hardened criminal on his own. So he teamed up with Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey, taking a break from always playing Kevin Spacey), who rose through the ranks by grasping at money and fame like windblown straw, and Wendell "Bud" White (Russell Crowe, taking a break from his fist-fighting hobby), who built his reputation as a cop by smashing people with bricks. Together they hit the streets with determination and grit to find the big bad murderer once and for all.
Kevin Spacey is the clear star of "L.A. Confidential," as Crowe's Bud White is too hot, while Pearce's Ed is a little too cold. Jack Vincennes, however, was just right as an unreliable narrator to deliver the connecting thread between scenes in the film. Each of them delivers stand-out performances, with special mention given to Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), long rumored to have retired, but actually just foolish enough to have become an actress over age thirty. Danny DeVito brought the movie's class as Sid Hudgens, and James Cromwell, who seems condemned to a life of being recognized as "that guy from that one movie," played "that guy" here as well.
"My, oh my," said the actors in this film as if with one voice, "What a large riding crop you carry!"
"The better to direct you with," replied Curtis Hanson, who had earlier directed "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" and went on to direct an episode of "Greg the Bunny," and therefore is the best director who has ever lived. As in the other projects, Hanson kept his actors on tight leashes through the shooting of "L.A. Confidential." This directing style is either going to work across the board on a project, as it generally worked for Stanley Kubrick and Paul Verhoven, or it will spiral out of control and create a whirling vortex of resentment and painful acting, as it often did for Alfred Hitchcock. Hanson has better luck with it than anybody had a right to expect and manages to draw out professional copy from his leads, even walking on water to briefly resurrect Kim Basinger for an Oscar-winning role. Hanson himself was nominated for Best Director only to lose out to James Cameron and the absolutely shameful haul for "Titanic" at the 1998 Academy Awards. Hanson did manage to beat out "Wag the Dog" and "Donnie Brasco" for Best Screenplay, however, so there's that.
The middle to late 1990s was an enchanted time in American cultural history, a time when millions of people tuned in every week to watch multimillionaires play at being young "Friends" in shared New York apartments that might fairly be described as palatial and TV shows about nothing could dominate the ratings. It was an age where, if one wasn't careful, vicious gangs of hooligans might leap out of nowhere to accost passers-by with swing music and '70s nostalgia. "L.A. Confidential" was a load-bearing structure of that culture. It was an effort to hearken back to the imagined hard-bitten days of dames and Joes and two-fisted drinkers who always smelled of Lucky Strikes before smoking caused cancer. In the context of its day, "L.A. Confidential" is a success story. It stood out from the pack for having better acting and a tighter script than a typical Brendan Fraser movie, and if it is taken on those terms, it's fair to say that just about every one of the heroes and goblins involved in "L.A. Confidential" lived happily ever after, except for Kim Basinger who, against her agent's advice, continued to age past thirty.