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Review: 'L.A. Confidential' delivers prime sinnuendo

From 'L.A. Confidential' September 30, 1997
Web posted at: 6:44 p.m. EDT (2244 GMT)

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Forget what you may have already heard. Curtis Hanson's "L.A. Confidential," an unapologetically brutal modern film noir, is not the best movie of the year. It's the five best movies of the year.

A highly evocative slice of seedy Los Angeles circa the mid-1950s, this is a film that's brimming with corruption, betrayal, and tawdry sex, but it's not thrown in our faces for the sake of cheap thrills. The multi-layered plot keeps you riveted for the best possible reason -- you can't start to imagine where the story is leading you, and the fiercely intense payoffs are repeatedly worth the extra concentration.

But you get far more than sheer visceral punch. There's a truly unexpected abundance of riches. As you may well know, I'm not one to risk going overboard with praise, but what we're looking at here is one of the sharpest, most exquisitely crafted films of the 1990's. You get it all -- a slew of exceptional performances, dead-on period detail, and a brilliant screenplay that refuses to let any of its morally-tainted characters off the hook, at least not through self-redemptive heroics.

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As far as I'm concerned, this baby is a godsend, especially when you consider that it's arriving on our screens in the middle of just about the lousiest year for American movies since the invention of the projector. My faith has been restored.

As the film opens, we're introduced to three L.A. detectives who will unravel a web of crime that leads to a heroin operation, a high-class call-girl ring, set-ups, double-crosses, and, finally, the corridors of power that are supposed to be keeping all this nastiness in check. Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is a bookish straight arrow who only wants to live up to his father's reputation as a dedicated cop. His betrayal of several officers who viciously beat a couple of Mexican inmates would stand as the entire plot in your average crime movie, but it's simply the opening salvo here.

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Exley is immediately shunned by his fellow officers, especially Bud White (Russell Crowe, who is about to become a major star), a massive, short-tempered type who has no problem at all with chaining suspects to chairs and pounding them into cooperation. Especially if they've been involved in beating women. White's partner gets kicked off the force due to Exley's ratting, so there's a palpable sense of menace whenever the two detectives are forced to interact with each other.

Floating elegantly around the edges of this situation is Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), a suave veteran who earns extra bucks as the technical advisor on a "Dragnet"-like cop show. He also likes to help a muck-raking tabloid journalist named Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito) set up unsuspecting stars and starlets as fodder for the tell-all publication, "Hush-Hush." Sid's stories (which he dubs "prime sinnuendo") have titles like "The Movie Premiere Pot Bust." It's all beneath Vincennes, but he doesn't mind patting his hair down and getting his picture in the paper. The extra 50 bucks a pop doesn't hurt either.

The trick is that none of these three cops can stand the sight of each other, so it's fascinating to see exactly how Hanson and Brian Helgeland (who co-adapted the script from James Ellroy's even more complex cult novel) will manage to get them working in tandem with each other. None of the detectives are driven by the same motive. Careerism, love, and a highly-unexpected sense of guilt all come into play, but not before they perform a series of loopty-loops around the various (and seemingly unrelated) plot strands. If you're looking for a sure bet, call Las Vegas right now and lay some money on this one winning the Oscar next year for Best Adapted Screenplay.

'L.A. Confidential'

The discovery of a gruesome mass execution at a diner known as The Nite Owl leads the detectives on a serpentine journey through the lower rungs, and then the upper-reaches, of L.A. society. A lot of people have been comparing "L.A. Confidential" to "Chinatown," but, aside from the obvious noir detail and the setting (and the great, piano-driven music by "Chinatown" composer Jerry Goldsmith), the only thing the two movies really have in common is that absolutely nothing about the crime is what it initially seems to be. The tone here is far pulpier than that of "Chinatown." Hanson's film feels more like some kind of wildly over-achieving Quinn Martin production than the sleek, well-oiled machine that Roman Polanski and Robert Towne so brilliantly devised 23 years ago.

There's a large cast of characters, all of them Hollywood archetypes, but they're presented for the most part as real human beings, not the cartoons that you usually find in this type of film. One of the key figures is Pierce Patchett (David Straitharn), a filthy-rich pimp who leases out women who've been surgically altered to look like movie stars. The "Veronica Lake" of this stable is Lynn Bracken, superbly underplayed by Kim Basinger. Lynn's silky charms, which could leave any man weak-kneed, soon give way to an aching heart, and the affections of a highly unlikely police detective.

The sudden explosions of gunplay that are part and parcel of the noir tradition are filmed with brio and an explicit sense of economy by Hanson. You feel that real people (with real blood and guts) are coming after each other, not a bunch of actors loaded up with squibs, and there's not the slightest hint of MTV over-editing. One sequence, in which Pearce marches into a room full of suspects and is forced to start unloading with a shotgun, is truly harrowing, as jolting as any sequence I've seen in years. Sam Peckinpah couldn't have done it better, and nothing in Hanson's previous films (the most popular being "The River Wild") suggests that he could be capable of this kind of precision. This is what filmmaking is all about, folks.

I'm also going to applaud the people way behind the scenes. The executives at Warner Brothers who were sharp enough to bring together this talented (and, for the most part, relatively unknown) group of artists and actually let them do what they're capable of doing are to be commended. The movie-making process today is the creative equivalent of baking a cake by committee, with 15 different people trying to add or yank eggs out of the batter. A film this richly detailed and complex does not come about when the big-wigs are trying to bend the filmmakers into some ungodly "commercial" approach to the story-telling. Everyone involved should be proud of the work they've done on this one.

Go see it. Then grab a friend and go see it again. Casting a couple of dollar-backed votes for quality might do us all a load of good in the future.

"L.A. Confidential" is one violent ride, but it's all done in the service of a gritty story. There's quick nudity, the aftermath of a prolonged rape, many police beatings, gunplay, pornographic photos, and just a general wallow in the seamy side of Tinseltown. It's a nifty way to exorcise the demons, though. Rated R. 136 minutes.


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