"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.