L.A. Confidential (1997)

D: Curtis Hanson
S: Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Kim Basinger

Highly praised detective thriller worthy of note for its good performances, general seriousness and success in rendering a complex plot in a comprehensible form, but not among the greatest masterpieces of Hollywood cinema, as many would have you believe. Based on the novel by James Ellroy, this tough, violent film is put together with enough style to make it engrossing and effective as a parable of ambition, corruption, law enforcement and violence. But it wouldn't have been hard for it to have tipped over the edge and become thoroughly routine. In this, director Curtis Hanson (The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, The River Wild) deserves praise. But it might also have been possible to imbue the film with a greater sense of cinema and of society which would have made it a rival to Chinatown (to which it has been unfairly and liberally compared), and it is not that. The film is so doggedly concerned with making sure that it works properly that little attention has been given to the meaning of it all, and there are precious few frozen moments which allow us to consider the implications of what is one of the busiest plots in recent memory or the metaphysical dimensions of the several strong characters whose transitions are both interesting and believable, yet very rapid.

The labyrinthian plot (apparently cut down from the novel) involves investigations into a series of crimes in 1950s Los Angeles by disparate characters in the 'new' Police Department (influenced by their own self-image on a TV show called Badge of Honour, clearly representing the perennial real life TV cop show Dragnet), all of which eventually come together in a rather unsurprising conspiracy which is nonetheless satisfyingly exposed. Among the players are slick, vain Kevin Spacey; arrogant, ambitious Guy Pearce; simpleminded, tough Russell Crowe and avuncular, sinister James Cromwell. Added to this are the constant attentions of gutter press journalist Danny De Vito, eager to profit from the city's seamy underbelly, the untouchable smugness of millionaire pimp David Strathairn, and the old fashioned whore with a heart of gold played by Kim Basinger.

Yes, there are a lot of them, and there's a lot to take in. But the film's great strength is in its careful exposition both of plot and character, and it becomes both a satisfying murder mystery and an acceptably dramatic character piece even though it moves very quickly. Each of the actors does well, with Spacey really relaxing into a screen persona he may find himself doomed to play forever unless he finds something else to do. Aussie thesps Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce do a good job playing hard boiled American detectives, and the cast on the whole are worked well into the fabric of the film under Hanson's direction.

Yet at the end of the day it is difficult to come away with much more than polite admiration for a job well done. L.A. Confidential never really grips the soul or gives pause for thought. Its observations on moral and institutional corruption are hardly original, and the spin it offers is more one of setting than of style. It never fully draws out the pervasive human darkness it seems to be dealing in, and resembles a modern action film more closely than a film noir. It performs within a fantasy framework which never fully convinces as an allegorical battleground, and its visual style is precisely that rather than an articulation of an aesthetic project which would enhance or inform the events on screen.

Of course it's not anyone's fault that postmodernism has robbed art of its meaning, and it is difficult for anything to break through in this type of environment. But there is only superficial pleasure to be derived from watching this film, and given that it has become increasingly difficult to see serious, well made Hollywood films, the enthusiastic reaction which greeted the release of this film is understandable. It is certainly worth seeing, and among the best films of the year. But perhaps the kind of apotheosis promised by its physical resemblance to so resonant a film as Chinatown makes it a disappointment, even outside the hype it received (a similar fate beheld Lee Tamahori's Mulholland Falls). It does raise the question of just how fair it is to compare one thing with the other, and L.A. Confidential is quite deliberately different from Polanski's masterpiece. Yet even within its own frames of reference, you get the feeling that there's a lot more that could have been on screen but simply didn't fit in the time allowed. Of course that is not to suggest a four hour film would have been the answer, but perhaps the ambition exceeds the probabilities of a workable script, and screenwriters Hanson, Brian Helgeland and Ellroy have done a marvellous job in rendering the plot at all.

Finally, L.A. Confidential is as good a thriller as you're likely to see from a director who has specialised in good thrillers since he broke through with The Bedroom Window. Any expectations over and above that are entirely a matter of contrivance on the part of critics and marketing execs. Let it do its job and enjoy the ride, just don't expect it to change your life.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1997.