Principal Cast : Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey, James Cromwell, Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito, David Strathairn, Ron Rifkin, Graham Beckel, Amber Smith, John Mahon, Paul Guilfoyle, Matt McCoy, Paolo Seganti, Simon Baker Denny, Tomas Arana, Michael McCleery, Shawnee Free Jones, Darrell Sandeen.
Synopsis: As corruption grows in 1950s Los Angeles, three policemen – one strait-laced, one brutal, and one sleazy – investigate a series of murders with their own brand of justice.
With a titanic all-star cast, superb period production design, exquisite cinematography, editing and music, and a sublime script by Brian Helgeland and director Curtis Hanson, LA Confidential was a noir thriller throwback to a dusty mid-50’s Los Angeles, that in any other year would win all the awards it was nominated for. With no fewer than nine Academy Award nominations, LA Confidential had the unfortunate bad luck to release the same year as a minor James Cameron film about a sinking boat, and ended up only snagging two wins come Oscar night – Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actress (Kim Basinger) – although there is legitimate argument among film fans that Confidential is the overall better film. Based on James Ellroy’s crackling neo-noir crime novel of the same name, Hanson’s film is an absolute pleasure of the senses and a remarkable storytelling achievement, and one that I savour each time I sit down to watch it. The performances are all pitch-perfect, the writing is in-credible, and the look and style of a period-era LA is oh-so-satisfying, it’s a filmmakers movie of the highest calibre.
LA Police Detective Sergeant Bud White (Russell Crowe in fine pre-Gladiator furious form) and fellow aspiring Detective Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce) are at opposite ends of the law enforcement spectrum. White is a hot-tempered, morally upright yet violently inclined extractor of justice, while Exley is a straight-laced, uncorruptable example of the American idealistic view of cops, and together they begin to unwrap a sprawling mass killing mystery enveloping the city. The case involves corrupt former cops, prostitutes and high-powered businessmen, as well as drugs and pornography in small amounts. White falls for lookalike actress-turned-whore Lynn Bracken (Basinger), while Exley and fellow LAPD Detective Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) work an angle involving shyster scandal peddler Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), aspiring actor Matt Reynolds (Simon Baker Denny), and high-class escort provider Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn), all while their boss, Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) harangues them to bring an end to the fear paralysing the city.
Every time I’ve ever sat down and watched LA Confidential, I’m always astonished that a film could be this good. Of the 13 films in the late Curtis Hanson’s directorial oeuvre, with 8 Mile and Wonder Boys coming in a close second and third, I would argue until I expired that LA Confidential is his masterpiece, and one of the greatest Hollywood films of all time. It’s a film that understands the power of moviemaking, given life by a director absolutely working out of his skin, with a team behind the camera forever etching their names into history with this incendiary, slick, exceptionally cool thriller that had, and continues to have, audiences guessing the world over. Unfairly tainted in recent years by the off-screen troubles of lead actor Kevin Spacey, LA Confidential is notable for Australian audiences for the heavy-hitting work of local lads Crowe and Pearce, whilst spotting early-career Simon Baker Denny in a minor supporting role adds to the lustre of this film – LA Confidential holds a special place in my heart for the simple reason being it’s led by a duo of Australian actors who do some seriously heavy lifting alongside their stellar supporting cast.
It’s staggering now to consider that for all the plaudits to come its way, LA Confidential’s brilliant cast were largely ignored by the Academy come awards time; out of everyone here, only Kim Basinger was nominated, and eventually won an Oscar in a supporting role. Frankly, how Russell Crowe and Kevin Spacey weren’t up for awards in Leading or Supporting roles that year baffles me, even more insane that this was the same year Kate WInslet and Leonardo DiCaprio perhaps should have also been nominated for Titanic – it’s a stacked, packed and racked year, but with neither Crowe, Spacey (or the equally excellent guy Pearce and DeVito, for that matter) up for anything this is a remarkable snub by the industry.
Based on James Elroy’s pulp novel, LA Confidential’s sparkling period dialogue, twisty plot and corrupting character turns are a delight to savour. Almost nobody in this film is quote-unquote “good” in the cinematic sense, broken and shallow people all trying to get through life in a bitter, difficult world. The glitz and glamour of Hollywood LA is tarnished by the rougher underbelly of celebrity and money, a ripe apple for Curtis Hanson’s slicked-up veneer of distaste to sink its teeth into. The film is a masterclass in tension, weaving multiple plot threads together, and character development. People who are eminently dislikeable become enthralling to watch, a mixture of the script and the actors performance of it, an at-times breath-taking combination of talent and… well, more talent.
Crowe leads the charge as Bud White, an angry and difficult pitbull who stops at nothing to get his man; Bud is an abrasive force compared to Guy Pearce’s Ed Exley, who does things by-the-book. As a double-act both actors spar well both verbally and physically, while also both somehow bedding local lookalike actress-turned-whore Lynn Bracken, with Basinger doing a lot to inhabit a conspicuously duplicitous role. Pearce’s character arc is a little stronger than that of Crowe’s, as Exley goes from straight-as-a-ruler cop to bend-the-rules adjacent in order to crack the case. Acting legend James Cromwell is terrific as the hard-bitten police chief Smith, and Danny DeVito’s scandal-rag publisher role is one of the actors best. Kevin Spacey, who is top-billed despite having what I would consider a supporting role overall, is suave and slick as the television savvy cop with the inside track, although his brush with actual crime sets him back on his heels a bit.
The secondary supporting cast are quite literally a roll-call of terrific “oh it’s that guy” faces, and I’m including the aforementioned Simon Baker Denny. The likes of Ron Rifkin, David Strathairn, Tomas Arana and John Mahon all pop in as denizens of the LA police scene, while Brenda Bakke’s moment as Lana Turner is one for the ages. Even down to the background actors, the film just oozes the kind of supple malignancy of Polanski’s Chinatown or dusky-brown set charm of Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the bleached LA skyline and delightful period locations depicted evoking a romanticised bygone era superbly. Dante Spinotte’s Oscar-nominated cinematography is spectacular.
The film is also remarkably violent. Like, this isn’t gentle police work here, it’s shoot-first storytelling that packs a wallop. People are shot, punched, pulverised and defenestrated all in remarkably potent moments of brutality that maximise the crisp, pulp noir nature of Hanson’s direction. Great sound design and mixing aide what is a terrifically balanced production in terms of period design, costuming and camerawork.
LA Confidential is a powder keg film that bruises and bashes its way to a shocking and cathartic conclusion that will have you whooping. It’s not an easy film in the sense that the characters are all flawed in some way (which is refreshing, given how one-dimensional some films of this genre tend to be) and the wantonness of the story is a matter of taste for many. But as a piece of cinematic art there are few films to stand alongside it as a masterclass from a top-of-his-game director, an an example of the genre that I would argue has yet to be bettered in modern times. Don’t keep this to yourself: LA Confidential is essential cinema.