Stylish 'L.A. Confidential' kicks in too late.
“HARD BOILED CRIME FICTION,” novelist James Ellroy has pronounced, “is the history of bad white men doing bad things in the name of authority.” “L.A. Confidential,” the new Curtis Hanson film based on Ellroy’s 1990 novel of the same name, is something slightly different — it’s the story of good white actors stranded, in the name of noir, in a movie that refuses to kick into gear until it’s far too late.
This didn’t have to happen. Ellroy’s novel is a ferocious, caterwauling slab of pulp — a big Buick 6 of a book that serves up 1950s-era L.A. as if the only creatures who strode the West Coast were mobsters, hookers, corrupt cops and scandal magazine editors. The only bummer about “L.A. Confidential,” the book, is fighting your way through Ellroy’s ridiculously rat-a-tat prose. (“The girl boo-hoo’d; sirens scree’d outside. Bud turned Sanchez around, kicked him in the balls. ‘For ours, Pancho. And you got off easy.’”) Reading Ellroy can be like deciphering Morse code tapped out by a pair of barely sentient testicles.
Curtis Hanson, the director behind the yuppie distress films “The River Wild” and “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” has said in interviews that he wanted to preserve as much of Ellroy’s language and dialogue as possible in his version of “L.A. Confidential.” Hanson has succeeded — perhaps too well. The first half of this film has a blocky, studied, too-well-lit feeling that squeezes the life out of scene after successive scene. There’s no room for poetry; worse, the actors seem to be performing in different movies.
“L.A. Confidential” opens with a series of campy, sunshine-filled reels of stock footage (palm trees, nuclear families, late-model cars) of 1950s Los Angeles. The cheerfully disembodied voice-over is supplied by Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), whom we come to find is the energetically sleazeball editor of a scandal sheet called Hush-Hush. “Life is good in L.A.,” Hudgens intones as we watch the shiny, happy people cavort. “It’s paradise.” His patter ends, as such patter is wont to do, with the (groan) warning: “But there is trouble in paradise …”
In this case, the trouble includes a series of gruesome and puzzling mob hits, which Hanson renders in short vignettes and flashes of lurid black-and-white news photographs. There’s trouble at the LAPD, too. For one thing, the squad has a real fondness for kicking the crap out of perps, Rodney King-style. For another, a smarmy celebrity detective named Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is on the take from Hush-Hush editor Hudgens. The latter sets up celebrities in compromising positions and then tips off Vincennes, who makes the bust while Hudgens gets the pix he needs.
“L.A. Confidential” quickly spins out into an ambitious ensemble piece — among the characters who are sucked into this far-flung story are Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), a languidly glamorous hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold who resembles Veronica Lake; an enigmatic and possibly sinister socialite named Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn); and corrupt District Attorney Ellis Lowe (Ron Rifkin). But at its heart, the movie is the story of three cops who find themselves drawn into the same tangled case. One of these cops is Vincennes, who wears a pinky ring and serves as technical advisor on a weekly TV show that celebrates the LAPD’s exploits. Another is Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), an ambitious young hard-on of an officer who angers the entire department with his by-the-book demeanor and his insistence on ratting out cops who physically abuse suspects. (“You’re all going in my report!” he whines.) Finally, there’s Bud White (Russell Crowe), whose loyalty and can-the-bullshit demeanor make him seem like half Jack Webb and half David Caruso in his “NYPD Blue” heyday. He’s a brooding, sensitive shitkicker.
Spacey, Pearce and Crowe are the best things about “L.A. Confidential.” Spacey has always been a master at radiating woozy insincerity, and here he neatly displays the rot behind Vincennes’ toothy smile. Pearce and Crowe are both young Australian actors with talent to burn. Pearce subtly transforms Exley from a geeky nerd (in the film’s first half, with his specs and slicked-back hair, he resembles Howdy-Doody) into a genuine moral force. Crowe, one of the most interesting young actors alive, merely smolders. “L.A. Confidential” picks up speed and intensity as these two young cops — they utterly loathe one other — come to realize they’re bound together by their interest in the same enigmatic case. Increasingly isolated from the rest of the force, they’re all each other’s got.
There’s a remarkable, deeply entrancing moment about a third of the way through “L.A. Confidential” that hints at how good this movie could have been. There’s been a murder at a downtown greasy spoon called the Nite Owl, and Exley is the first detective on the scene. As he enters the eerily empty diner, we take in the view from his perspective: the blackened-but-still-sizzling burgers on a grill, chairs toppled in various directions, blood stains on walls. Hanson lingers on these details, and he manages to convey a genuine sense of dread — Exley doesn’t know if the killer is still somewhere in the place — while also dropping you directly into a detective’s mind. You’re cataloging the evidence as he does. This is also the scene in which Hanson begins to allow us to relate to the dorky Exley; we’re subtly being pulled over to his side.
The final third of “L.A. Confidential” picks up on the promise of this scene, and, frankly, it’s worth wading through the first sections of this movie to get to it. As Exley and White pursue their prey — the man behind the mob hits and the deaths of several of the movie’s other major characters — “L.A. Confidential” begins to slide on noirish juice of its own excreting. You wish the film had narrowed its focus down to these two mismatched cops more quickly.
If “L.A. Confidential” gets darker, it also gets funnier. There’s a hilarious scene in which Exley and White enter a nightclub to rough up a snitch named Johnny Stompanato, who’s tucked into a booth with a hooker who appears to be a dead ringer for Lana Turner. (One of the film’s subplots is about a prostitution ring in which each of the women is surgically altered to resemble a different film siren.) Exley looks at the would-be Lana Turner and spits: “Just because you’re cut to look like Lana Turner doesn’t mean you’re not still a hooker.” In response, she smartly tosses a drink in his face. Vincennes, standing behind him, says simply: “She is Lana Turner.” There’s another nice moment where a coroner, with perfect deadpan pitch, recounts to White the contents of a murdered actor’s stomach: “Hot dogs,” he says. “French fries. Alcohol. Sperm.”
Critics are already comparing “L.A. Confidential” to movies such as “Chinatown” and “Pulp Fiction.” They’re blowing smoke. This film hasn’t the confidence or the nerve of either of those earlier pictures. You emerge from the theater feeling like Hanson finally managed to push “L.A. Confidential” past the usual boundaries — your waiting hasn’t been entirely in vain — but by this point you’re almost too burned out to care.
Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor. More Dwight Garner.
More Related Stories
- Justin Timberlake: I'm a mediocre folk singer!
- Ray Manzarek, founding member of The Doors, dies at 74
- Beware of book blurbs
- Did a Salon excerpt ruin Penn Jillette's chance to win "Celebrity Apprentice"?
- Zach Galifianakis to take formerly homeless woman to "Hangover 3" premiere
- Seth MacFarlane will not host Oscars again
- "SNL's" uncomfortable Garner/Affleck moment
- "Celebrity Apprentice" finale ratings hit a new low
- Worst National Anthem fails
- The truth in Kanye's anti-prison rap
- Stephen Colbert to UVA: "You must always make the path for yourself"
- "Game of Thrones," season 3, episode 8: A salon
- Bieber booed, Miguel falls on fan at Billboard Awards
- "Mad Men" recap: Love, acid and whores. Lots of whores
- Taylor Swift leads Billboard winners
- “Game of Thrones” recap: “We must do our duty”
- "The Unwinding": What's gone wrong with America
- Michael J. Fox wins: The best and worst of the new fall shows
- First look: The Coens' marvelous folk-music odyssey
- New York's most persecuted subway artist?
- James Franco: "I really felt I was in conversation with Faulkner"
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11