I wasn’t planning on reviewing many top box office or Oscar hits with this blog, as I wanted to showcase some little-remembered films or those I found to be a treat where others might have dismissed them. I’m going off-course today with “L.A. Confidential.” It won two Oscars, was nominated for seven more but was only the 24th ranked film in ticket sales for 1997. I happened to catch it on IFC in the past few days and decided to write this review.
(1997; 138 minutes; rated R; directed by Curtis Hanson and starring Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce)
POWERFUL IS AN UNDERSTATEMENT HERE
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 there). “L.A. Confidential” is the second most powerful film I’ve seen after “The Deer Hunter.”
The five 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 who is the thread that makes the entire costume come apart so it can be repaired.
The story is convoluted, deep and layered with subplots. James Ellroy, who is the author of the bestseller 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 did and the story is compressed nicely and you find yourself on an emotional roller coaster.
Simply put (and it’s not easy), a mob boss goes to jail and in the aftermath the police department wants to keep new 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; and a businessman who’s basically a high-class pimp and 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:
- 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 does). Crowe gives the performance of his career here (better than his Oscar-winning “Gladiator” and much better than the mis-told “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).
- Two-time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey is narcotics “Sgt. Jack Vincennes” and is replete in his role as the adviser to the TV show “Badge of Honor” (a thinly disguised “Dragnet”) and more interested in the lights of Hollywood than being a real cop. Spacey smoothly conveys emotion not only with dialogue but with an almost imperceptible movement of his head. It’s a great understated effort and he won Oscars for “American Beauty” and “The Usual Suspects.”
- 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 beats 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.”
- 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 a Oscar for “Babe” and has also been in “The Green Mile” and “The Sum of All Fears.”
- 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-energy character. She redeems herself as well as both Crowe and Pearce. Basinger has also been in “Batman” and “8 Mile.”
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 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:
- Danny DeVito as tabloid editor “Sid Hudgens” is intertwined with all the subplots until his demise at the direction of Cromwell. He does a great job here as the sleazy reporter who sets up people for busts by Spacey. 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” as well as the very funny but little-remembered “Ruthless People” with Bette Midler (click here for my review).
- 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” 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.”
The filmmaking overall and cinematography and costuming specifically are worth mentioning here. The tabloid theme (narrated by DeVito’s character) is done really well until the film is in top gear in its race to the ending credits. The locales are carefully chosen and it does appear that it was actually shot in the 1950s instead of the recent past.
In wrapping it all up, Pearce kills Cromwell, who looked as if he’d still come out on top despite everything crashing 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!
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.
Assorted cast notes (via IMDb.com):
- Both Crowe and Pearce are Australian 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).
- 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.
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