L.A. Confidential (1998)

May 11, 1998

Everyone’s seen those tacky astrology placemats at their local Chinese restaurant - the ones that divide people into twelve specific animal types, based on that particular person’s birth year. If this centuries-old personality schematic holds any water at all, then L.A. Confidential gumshoe Bud White (Russell Crowe) would definitely fall under the year of the Dog. Like a stray whose hide has seen the bottom of too many boots, White is convinced that people falls into two categories - those that cause pain, and those that require protection. White sees life through the eyes of a dog; he sees in black and white.

Russell Crowe is one of those actors that seem unable to do wrong. Even in a clunker like Virtuosity, Crowe manages to emanate the kind of screen magnetism that most Hollywood actors would kill their agents for. Crowe sucks you in with understatement, with an intensity reminiscent of Steve McQueen’s anti-hero vehicle Bullitt, and his performance in L.A. Confidential is one of the finest Hollywood moments of this year. Crowe sucks Bud White up and spits him out of his eyes, turning an innocuous glance into something heavy with emotion. When he actually speaks in his raspy whisper, it’s like audible exclamation points - the dialogue stings the ears.

The movie was directed by Curtis Hanson, whose handiwork was previously limited to trashy corn like Hand that Rocks the Cradle and The River Wild. Here, he seems to be working under the possession of another, more capable director, as Confidential bears no sign of the poppycock that infested his earlier works. Instead, like Crowe, Hanson coaxes the movie along to its climax with a subtle hand, allowing a crack cast to work with co-scriptwriter Brian Helgeland’s dialogue instead of applying his usual hamfistedness to the proceedings.

Based on the James Ellroy potboiler, L.A. Confidential mellows the novel’s labyrinthine plotting and concentrates on White and the driven flatfoot Ed Exley (Guy Pearce). The story follows a complex story of police corruption, murder and betrayal in 1950’s Hollywood; film noir set to swaying palm trees and bleeding oil derricks, complete with a femme fatale doppelganger, Veronica Lake lookalike Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), and tabloid worm Sid “Hush Hush” Hudgens.

Basinger must have absorbed her co-stars talent through some funky thespian osmosis here, as this is easily her least offensive role ever. Her Lynn Bracken just has to ooze sexuality and act as a fulcrum for the plot to swivel around, and she fulfills this purpose with a poise that I never thought her capable of. Of course, surrounded by proven talents like James Cromwell (as Capt. Dudley Smith) and the new king of cussing Kevin Spacey as the swaggering celebrity cop Jack Vincennes, she probably couldn’t help but learn a thing or two.

L.A. Confidential is the best thing to come around major screens here in months, and while it’s nowhere near perfect (the plot pacing is too lumbering up until the half-way point, then blazes to a hurried climax, and the ending is too pat and complete), the performances and an intelligent but emotive script make up for the film’s problems. Don’t believe the hype - L.A. Confidential is no Chinatown, but it still makes for a worthy addition to the guys-with-guns L.A. noir genre. This ain’t no dog.

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