Movie review: ‘L.A. Confidential’

I wasn’t planning on reviewing many top box office or Oscar hits when I began posting to this blog. I wanted to showcase some little-remembered films or those I found to be a treat where others might have dismissed them. However, I’m going far off-course today with “L.A. Confidential.” It won two Oscars, was nominated for seven more, but surprisingly was only the 24th ranked film in ticket sales for 1997. Here is one of the most powerful and visceral films I’ve seen since “The Deer Hunter” in 1978. “L.A. Confidential” is punch in the gut and then an uppercut. You won’t forget it once you’ve seen it.

‘L.A. Confidential’
(1997; 138 minutes; rated R; directed by Curtis Hanson and starring Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce)

POWERFUL IS AN UNDERSTATEMENT HERE

(NOTE: I expanded this review with additional opinion and trivia and the updating of links on Nov. 23, 2019.)

It’s rare that a film has more than two Oscar-worthy performances but “L.A. Confidential” has five and it only got one nomination for acting (and won), plus seven others including for best picture and best director (no wins for the biggest two). “L.A. Confidential” is the second most powerful film I’ve seen after “The Deer Hunter” and is American cinema at its best.

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The five Oscar-worthy performances span every part of human nature from a man who oozes menace and violence but has a true moral streak; another man who is in the heights of power and wields his wickedness with careful, cold deliberation; the third man who is a mixture of the first two and is seduced by promotion; the last man is smooth and Hollywood and has forgotten the best part of himself; and finally a woman as the thread that makes the entire costume come apart so it can be repaired.

The story is convoluted, deep and layered with subplots. Acclaimed novelist James Ellroy, who penned the bestseller of the same name on which “L.A. Confidential” is based, was quoted as saying his novel was so intricate he didn’t believe that anyone could make it work. Director Curtis Hanson managed the near-impossible and the story is nicely compressed and you find yourself on an emotional roller coaster.

Simply put (and it’s not easy), in the aftermath of a mob boss going to jail, the police department wants to keep a new wave of organized crime out of Los Angeles. Against this backdrop is an over-achieving officer determined to climb the ladder quickly; another who is a traditional street tough guy who likes to punish wife-beaters; a businessman who’s basically a high-class pimp; and, finally, one of his women.

They all converge as tabloid press coverage of the gang war, police violence and political maneuvering keeps the flames stoked to a white-hot heat.

Here’s a look at the main players:

  • An Oscar winner and two-time nominee (not for this one), Russell Crowe is simply at his powerful best here as “Officer Wendell ‘Bud’ White.” He simply oozes menace and you expect him to explode into violence at any time (and he often does). Crowe gives the performance of his career here (better than his Oscar-winning “Gladiator” and much better than the intellectually dishonest crapfest called “A Beautiful Mind”). Crowe is a bulldozer when he gets a mission, but his inherent goodness and smarts are brought out by Kim Basinger (I’ll get to her in a moment). His other nomination was for “The Insider.” Crowe also did solid work in the western “The Quick and the Dead” (click here for my review).
  • Two-time Oscar winner and international-class creep Kevin Spacey is “Sgt. Jack Vincennes” on the narcotics squad and is replete in his role as the adviser to the TV show “Badge of Honor” (a very thinly disguised “Dragnet”) and more interested in the lights of Hollywood than being a real cop. Spacey smoothly conveys motion not only with dialogue but with an almost imperceptible movement of his head. It’s a great understated effort easily worthy of his work in his Oscar-winning work on “American Beauty” and “The Usual Suspects.” Sad that with all his talent, Spacey is alleged to be such a piece of slime because he’s among his generation’s best actors.
  • A Golden Globe nominee (not for this one), Guy Pearce is “Det. Lt. Edmund ‘Ed’ Exley” and is the straight-laced department climber who rats out fellow officers who beat up suspects and upgrades his less-than-masculine reputation by killing three suspects with a shotgun. Pearce is magnificent as the earnest fast-rising cop who ultimately joins forces with his sworn enemy Crowe to take down everyone who’s left standing at the end. Pearce has also been in “Memento” and “The Hurt Locker.” He earned his nomination for TV’s “Mildred Pierce
  • An Oscar nominee (not for this one), James Cromwell, who plays “Capt. Dudley Smith,” isn’t the kindly farmer you remember in “Babe.” He is cold, calculating and is the person trying to take over control of crime in Los Angeles as he uses his cops as his enforcers. He winds up killing Spacey but falls for the dying man’s trap and unknowingly reveals his true self to Pearce. Cromwell was nominated for “Babe” and has also been in “The Green Mile” and “The Sum of All Fears.” He also had small parts in the simply awful “Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom” (click here for my review) as well as the hilarious comedy classic “Revenge of the Nerds” (click here for my review).
  • Basinger did win an Oscar for her work as “Lynn Bracken,” the high-class call girl who falls for Crowe but is used to distract Pearce as a way to drive a wedge between the two men. She deserves her Oscar for her low-key but subtly high-emotional energy character. She redeems herself as well as being what rebuilds both Crowe and Pearce after having first ripped them to shreds. Basinger has also been in “Batman” and “8 Mile” and is entirely forgettable in the why-did-they-do-it remake of “The Getaway.”

The intricate interplay between these actors is so wonderful that I cannot even try to describe details because it would take too much time. Don’t blink on this one because each detail is layered and leads to the next and you wouldn’t want to miss anything … unless it was to be an excuse to watch it again.

Other supporting players of note include:

  • An Oscar nominee (not for this one), Danny DeVito plays tabloid editor “Sid Hudgens” and is intertwined with all the subplots until his demise. He does a great job here as the sleazy reporter who sets up people for busts by Spacey so he can get a salacious headline. DeVito’s effort is just one step down from the ultra-high bar set by the others. DeVito has also done great work in “Twins” (click here for my review) as well as the very funny but little-remembered “Ruthless People” with Bette Midler (click here for my review). He was nominated as producer for “Best Film” for the overrated and deficient “Erin Brockovich.”
  • Ron Rifkin is “District Attorney Ellis Loew” and he, too, is a political animal but winds up running into the buzzsaw that a joint Crowe-Pearce team present. He’s breezily arrogant throughout the beginning of the film but is left in the plot’s wake as it powers to the climatic shootout scene. Rifkin was also in “Boiler Room” (click here for my review) and “Tadpole.”
  • Oscar-nominated David Strathairn plays “Pierce Morehouse Patchett” and is the millionaire businessman who moonlights with being a high-class pimp and pornographer. Strathairn is good at being an amoral peddler of women and has also been in HBO’s “The Sopranos” as well as “Sneakers” with Robert Redford (click here for my review) and was nominated for an Oscar for “Good Night, and Good Luck.”

Overall, the filmmaking and cinematography along with costuming are worth mentioning here. The tabloid theme (narrated by DeVito’s character) is done really well until the film is in top gear in a race to the ending credits. The locales are carefully selected and it does appear that it was actually shot in the 1950s instead of the recent past.

In wrapping it all up, the good guy prevails over the baddest bad guy, who looked as if he’d still come out on top despite everything having crashed down around him and manages to set the record straight on crimes that brought him prominence but at the expense of justice. Crowe, wounded in the final gun battle, goes away with Basinger and just about everyone else of note is dead. Whew!

Hanson did a stunningly impressive job with this film. While he didn’t win for directing, Hanson did get a statue for adapting the screenplay from the novel and was also nominated for “Best Film” as producer. Sadly, Hanson died at 71 in 2016 and reportedly suffered from dementia, according to Wiki.

I say this is the film I rate second-most powerful because the Vietnam-era movie “The Deer Hunter” is so emotionally stunning that it is difficult to watch a second time. I enjoy watching “L.A. Confidential” for its power and wonderful work by its actors and cannot do the same for “The Deer Hunter” despite it being even better than “L.A. Confidential” in some respects (it won five Oscars including “Best Picture”).

L.A. Confidential” was the 24th ranked film at the U.S. box office for ticket sales in 1997 with $64.6 million, according to Box Office Mojo. Ultimately it would bring home $126.2 million on its $35 million budget, according to Wiki. I realize that it’s not a kid-friendly film and therefore cannot harvest those dollars or is in the terror market, but it’s simply incredible that it didn’t beat “Flubber” or “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” The No. 1 film of the year was “Titanic” with $600.7 million, which was more than double that of the No. 2 film: “Men in Black” with $250.6 million. Here are the other films from 1997 that I’ve reviewed:

Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):

  • Both Crowe and Pearce are native Australians and filmmakers were initially reluctant to have two non-Americans in the roles (and both reportedly worked with voice coaches to erase their accents for the film). Wow, terrible call averted with this one.
  • Basinger reportedly turned down the role she ultimately played – three times! She was reportedly the director’s only choice to play the part.
  • When asked who he would have liked to have played “Jack Vincennes,” Hanson said Dean Martin and cited a previous film in which the Rat Packer showed a dramatic turn.
  • Matt McCoy plays “Brett Chase” as the actor on the “Badge of Honor” TV show (he’s the Jack Webb-like character … in action, not physical presence) and has a small role but you notice him among the 80 speaking parts of the film. He was also in “Police Academy 5: Assignment Miami Beach” as well as a string of TV roles.
  • Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “The cop that congratulates Exley at the end is Daryl Gates, famously of the real-life LAPD, in an uncredited role.” Uh, Gates was once the chief of the LAPD. Too bad an internet poster couldn’t do basic research.
  • Click here for IMDb.com’s extensive trivia page about the film …

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014, 2019.
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