September 19, 1997 in Seven

Hollywood Grime ‘L.A. Confidential’ Wallows In Sleazy World Of Tinseltown’s Bad Cops And Crooked Creeps

By The Spokesman-Review
 

As he demonstrated in his recent memoir “My Dark Places,” novelist James Ellroy holds a unique view of the world. Not original, mind you, but still unique.

Uniquely dark, at any rate. And what else would you expect from a guy who, as an adolescent, lost his mother (whose murder was never solved), lived with his alcoholic father and who ended up spending most of his teen years in a drunken haze, sometimes sleeping on the streets?

Ellroy survived to become a writer of such books as “The Black Dahlia,” “White Jazz” and “L.A. Confidential,” the latter of which director Curtis Hanson now has adapted to the big screen.

In his books, Ellroy specializes in hipster mysteries, period-piece novels - often told in the be-bop lingo of the time - that explore the underside of post-World War II Los Angeles. It’s the same territory that Raymond Chandler prowled, a landscape of contrast between the bright lights of the movie business and the sordid life that goes on the shadows.

“L.A. Confidential” is a perfect example of the form. It involves three L.A.P.D. detectives who, each for his own reasons, does a bit of extra investigating on something called the “Nite Owl Murders.”

Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is the ultimate straight arrow, the son of a police officer whose desire to do right runs in constant conflict with his political ambitions. Bud White (Russell Crowe) is a cop’s cop, a guy who isn’t about to let finer points of the law get in the way of his sense of justice. And Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is interested only in advising for a television show, in being involved in celebrity arrests and in regularly earning a bit of payoff from a sleazy magazine editor (Danny De Vito).

When White’s former partner is discovered among the corpses at what appears to be a botched diner robbery, all three detectives get involved in the subsequent investigation. Exley, following a hunch, becomes a hero for ultimately breaking the case.

But did he? Doubts linger, and one by one the three detectives begin to smell something rotten. The trail leads them to more bodies, a prostitution ring of women who resemble movie stars, the rich guy (David Strathairn) who runs the racket, a suitcase full of heroin and, ultimately, to the highest corners of the Los Angeles itself.

The question then is: Will the three live long enough to get at the truth?

Director and co-screenwriter (with Brian Helgeland) Curtis Hanson takes Ellroy’s pulp fiction to a higher level. Following the same kind of subject as Lee Tamahori did in “Mulholland Falls,” Hanson profits from a better sense of story and from a more believable set of characters. His “L.A. Confidential” isn’t exactly “Chinatown,” but it’s at least in the neighborhood.

Hanson’s strength is narrative drive, which he put on good display in such films as “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” and “The River Wild.” “L.A. Confidential” stumbles only a couple of times, mainly near the end, and those missteps end up being mere distractions.

On the other hand, Hanson’s feel for 1950s Los Angeles is superb. The City of Angels seldom has looked this good.

And his ability to pull compelling performances from his actors is unerring. Spacey, an Oscar winner for “The Usual Suspects,” gives his celebrity cop character just the right mix of arrogance, sass and conscience. His downfall is that, as a fellow officer tells him, he just hasn’t had enough practice in doing the right thing.

More surprising are the other two leads, Crowe and Pearce. Australians both, they have enjoyed some American success (Crowe in “The Quick and the Dead” and “Virtuosity”) and Pearce in “The Adventures Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” But this is their step into the big time, and Crowe is superb as the brooding thug who will kill a man for abusing a woman; Exley is his match as the dutiful son continually haunted by a nightmare he calls “Rolo Tomasi.”

In addition, “L.A. Confidential” uses a few real-life characters (Lana Turner and Johnny Stompanato, Mickey Cohen, etc.). It is effectively narrated in the first half by De Vito’s sleaze publisher. And it features James Cromwell (“Babe”) as a tough-nosed police official who may not be all he seems.

In the end, though, the film IS all Ellroy. It emerges from the dark only near the end, and that emergence sounds a false note. But Hanson compensates by providing more than enough of Ellroy’s fascination for all things demonic.

The result is, as De Vito’s character would say, a choice bit of “prime sinuendo.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo

MEMO: These 2 sidebars appeared with the story:

1. “L.A. Confidential”

***-1/2

Locations: Newport

Credits: Directed by Curtis Hanson, starring Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, Guy Pearce, Kim Basinger, James Cromwell, Danny De Vito, David Strathairn.

Running time: 2:30

Rating: R

2. OTHER VIEWS

Here’s what other critics say about “L.A. Confidential:”

Chris Hewitt/St. Paul Pioneer Press: Smart, cynical and stylish, “L.A. Confidential” is a knockout… . Watching it reminds you how great the movies can be.

Jay Carr/The Boston Globe: “L.A. Confidential,” a throbbing evocation of the sleazy Hollywood allure of the ‘50s is clearly destined to become one of the hits of 1997.

Lawrence Toppman/The Charlotte Observer: “L.A. Confidential” is faithful to the tone of James Ellroy’s book: It’s peopled by honest brutes, millionaires who prostitute streetwalkers and politicians with equal ease, police who can’t decide whether their next handout should come from heroin dealers or the tabloids (with which they arrange very public arrests).

If you want to swim in this moral cesspool, you won’t do better than this film.

These 2 sidebars appeared with the story:

1. “L.A. Confidential” ***-1/2 Locations: Newport Credits: Directed by Curtis Hanson, starring Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, Guy Pearce, Kim Basinger, James Cromwell, Danny De Vito, David Strathairn. Running time: 2:30 Rating: R

2. OTHER VIEWS Here’s what other critics say about “L.A. Confidential:” Chris Hewitt/St. Paul Pioneer Press: Smart, cynical and stylish, “L.A. Confidential” is a knockout… . Watching it reminds you how great the movies can be. Jay Carr/The Boston Globe: “L.A. Confidential,” a throbbing evocation of the sleazy Hollywood allure of the ‘50s is clearly destined to become one of the hits of 1997. Lawrence Toppman/The Charlotte Observer: “L.A. Confidential” is faithful to the tone of James Ellroy’s book: It’s peopled by honest brutes, millionaires who prostitute streetwalkers and politicians with equal ease, police who can’t decide whether their next handout should come from heroin dealers or the tabloids (with which they arrange very public arrests). If you want to swim in this moral cesspool, you won’t do better than this film.


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email