NOTE: While I try to avoid any major plot points or spoilers in this review, for people looking for a fresh and uninitiated viewing of this complex thriller, it would be wise to read this post after watching the movie.
For any film noir/murder mystery/thriller movie to work and be successful, it has to have the following elements going for it. First of all, it has to have strong plot which draws the viewers attention to the film never letting go of it till the final credits roll on-screen. Secondly, it has to have strong characterization with a set of central characters which the viewer can identify with and care for. Thirdly, and most importantly, it has to have a very strong and cohesive screenplay which brings all the elements of the movie together and ties up all the loose ends successfully. Though it is nearly impossible to pull off all the above elements to perfection, any movie which can do so even with a certain degree of success is surely going to be a very engaging thriller. L.A. Confidential (1997) is one such movie and is probably one of the best examples of a movie where all the elements are worked out to near perfection and, for that reason, it is one of the best crime thrillers that I have ever seen.
** L.A. Confidential** can be primarily classified as a film noir thriller but, in my opinion, that would be desperately selling it short. Sure all the elements needed for such a movie are present such as drugs, sex, multiple homicides, prostitution etc. complete with cinematography full of diluted hues and a background score that will distinctly remind you of older noir thrillers. However, by setting the story against the backdrop of 1950’s Los Angeles, the director also explores some elements of the city we are now familiar with but were just starting out in that time period such as police & political corruption and sensationalist journalism while also focusing on the glitz and glamour of the city. This gives the movie a sense of character that few other movies have because the city is an integral part of the movie and parts of the complex story are woven directly around it.
The movie opens as the city’s biggest crime lord, Mickey Cohen, is arrested and jailed for income tax evasion leaving the spot vacant for anyone to take over. This small sequence is narrated by Hush-Hush magazine chief editor Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito) which leads us to suspect that possibly the entire movie could be narrated by him. However, those suspicions are immediately laid to rest as the movie moves its focus to Bud White (Russell Crowe), Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) and Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce) who are going to be the three principal protagonists in the movie.
Bud White is possibly the most intensely likable character of the three even though he is also the most violent. He is the kind of person who acts first and thinks later (something which certain people use against him) and is not afraid to deliver his own brand of justice if he sees it fit. He especially has a deep hatred for men who abuse women and these guys get to see him in all his fury. Jack Vincennes is the most glamorous and sleazy of the three who also works as technical advisor for Badge of Honour which is a cop-based TV show. He also cuts win-win deals with the aforementioned Sid Hudgens, wherein the reporter provides information on celebrities doing drugs and he gets to arrest them in the act while also getting his photo on the cover of Hush-Hush boosting magazine sales in the process. Ed Exley is the extremely intelligent son of a decorated ex-cop who wants to play everything by the book even if it means he is going to be an outcast in the department’s homicide division. He is the kind of politically-correct person who does most things right and follows all the rules but still can end up in the viewers’ bad books in the process.
The entire story is built around an incident called the Nite Owl Massacre, where six people (including Bud’s ex-partner) are killed in the Nite Owl Coffee Shop. The department opens up investigations in which all three are involved to varying degrees which culminates with the case getting closed and the primary accused being killed while trying to escape. However, something doesn’t feel right and each of the three open up separate investigations. Bud follows an angle involving his run-in with one of the women who was killed in the massacre. Jack is set up for arrest of the district D.A. by Sid which ends up with a budding actor being murdered forcing him to get involved while Ed Exley just has a gut feeling that he got the medal of valour for the wrong reasons and that the case is still open.
Each of their investigations also connects to a multitude of subplots prevalent throughout the course of the movie. Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn) is a rich businessman on the outside who also runs a high-class call-girl service by turning girls into Hollywood actress look-alikes. One of these is Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), a Veronica Lake look-alike, who was friends with one of the Nite Owl victims and who also becomes romantically involved with Bud White. Another subplot involves Captain Dudley Smith (Jack Cromwell) who uses muscle cops like Bud to rough-up gangsters from out-of-town forcing them to flee from the city.
Curtis Hanson (serving as Director and Screenwriter), along with co-writer Brian Helgeland, deserves all of the praise for a truly amazing screenplay. With so much going on, it would have been overwhelming for the viewers if we had been forced to think about them during the movie, but, by focusing our entire attention on the characters right from the first scene, the director makes sure that we don’t think much about the subplots until he is ready to tie them all together. The only thing we as viewers care about is what happens to the three main protagonists. And when the screenplay does tie up everything together neatly, with no deus ex machina or other plot contrivances of any sort, the only thing left for us to do is stand up and applaud the depth and complexity of it all.
Although Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce have become famous because of their appearances in blockbusters (Crowe in Gladiator and Pearce in Memento), both of them were relative unknowns in Hollywood in 1997; still, their acting quality shines through in this movie. With nary a hint of their Australian accent in show, their performances are one of the main reasons we are drawn into the movie and relate with their characters in the first place. Crowe certainly looks the part of the rough-n-tough cop with a bulky body and delivers a solid portrayal which allows us to sympathize with Bud White. Pearce’s intense performance is very effective in showing that Ed Exley means business in the department. Kevin Spacey was the most famous of the three in 97, yet he is also stuck with the least screen time. He still develops Jack into a charismatic person who still has some honor left in him to go and find the truth even if it means moving out his comfort zone as the slick and famous celebrity cop.
Of the supporting performances, Kim Basinger’s is the most effective, for which she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. She portrays Lynn as a sympathetic individual who is immediately attracted to Bud White because of his kindness towards women which overshadows his rough-cop appearance. One of the best scenes in the movie is Lynn’s monologue to Ed Exley on why she fell for Bud in the first place. Senior actors Jack Cromwell, David Strathairn and Danny DeVito all provide solid and credible supporting performances.
It is hard to find fault with a movie of the quality of L.A. Confidential. All the elements required for a great movie in general are on full display here with a complex plot, a multi-layered screenplay and top-class performances. I would heartily recommend it to anyone who wants to watch one of the finest thrillers in recent memory.