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L.A. Confidential   A+

Warner Bros. Pictures

Year Released: 1997
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Curtis Hanson
Writers: Brian Helgeland, Curtis Hanson (based on the novel by James Ellroy)
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, James Cromwell, David Strathairn, Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito.

Review by Rob Vaux

There is a very short list of truly extraordinary films of the last quarter-century, and picking a single favorite from them is always tough. Fargo makes for an easy answer, as does Brazil and Chungking Express. You could argue a very, very strong case for Do the Right Thing, which has lost none of its fire or topicality over the years. The fanboy in me is always quick to champion The Lord of the Rings, and last's years crop of films may age exceedingly well. At the end of the day, however -- when I gaze into my heart of hearts -- there's really only one choice I can make: Curtis Hanson's indelible adaptation of L.A. Confidential, which arrived earlier this month in a 10th-anniversary DVD.

On the most basic level, it simply knows film noir like no other movie since Chinatown. Its labyrinthine plot of corrupt cops and compromised fantasy effortlessly conveys that most American of genres in a way that is at once utterly contemporary and deeply respectful of the films which preceded it. It's all the more extraordinary because it comes from a novel most people considered unfilmable. Author James Ellroy's sprawling imagination painted a bleak yet dazzling picture of postwar Southern California that could never fit within the confines of a movie screen. But Hanson and co-writer Brian Helgeland spent years honing it down to its core essence, and in the process captured lightning in a bottle.

As the DVD's behind-the-scenes features make clear, however, it was still a tough sell. The plot remained terrifyingly complex, and revolved around three protagonists instead of one: an absolute no-no from Hollywood's perspective. All three are detectives in the LAPD circa 1953, each embodying a different part of its promise and a fair amount of its sins. Bud White (Russell Crowe) is a walking police-brutality charge, pounding suspects senseless as a means of holding his demons at bay. Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is a consummate manipulator who masks Machiavellian cunning beneath an effeminate facade. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is a smiling phony who specializes in meaningless high-profile arrests that make him look good to his Hollywood buddies. All three have the makings of great policemen; all three have let that potential slip beneath selfishness and lies. Then comes a shocking mass murder at an all-night café, one whose roots stretch deep into the Los Angeles underworld. Like the blind men and the elephant, each detective has a piece of the truth -- tabloid blackmail, gangland warfare, a string of prostitutes who resemble famous movie stars -- but their respective shortcomings (and mutual antipathy for each other) keep them from seeing what it all means.

With their respective investigations as a framework, Hanson reveals the City of Angels at its best and worst. Everything is a facade in L.A. Confidential: beautiful and alluring but hiding a bottomless abyss beneath. Evil creeps in to the characters' souls so quietly that they're scarcely aware of it until it threatens to consume them. They cling to their illusions as a way of making sense of it all, unaware of how that enables the very corruption they once swore to destroy. Their struggle for salvation starts with acknowledging the truth about themselves and their city -- seeing it for what it is and accepting it with no regrets. Wrapped in the trappings of a sublimely plotted police thriller, that equation becomes impossible to resist.

Yet it certainly wasn't seen that way early on. Though critics adored it, its box-office take was mediocre at best, and it was trounced at the Oscars by James Cameron's Titanic (whose star has since fallen as steeply as L.A. Confidential's has risen). The DVD format gave it a new lease on life, allowing fans to discover it at a more leisurely pace which suited its quiet brilliance. This isn't a film that screams for attention. It doesn't blow you away with stunning visuals or stand on a soapbox to say Very Important Things. Its strengths lie in the way it mirrors its characters, enticing you to look past the surface and see what's lurking below.

Hanson aids that journey not only through his unparalleled grasp of the narrative, but also through his understanding and love for L.A. Many of the sets here are authentic locations: pieces of So Cal history which Hanson weaves into the storyline with delicacy and respect. That helps the characters spring to uncanny life: not as wax sculptures from a bygone era, but as a vibrant bridge between their time and ours. Kim Basinger won an Oscar as the film's reluctant muse -- one of the aforementioned hookers who has made peace with her place in this make-believe world -- but no other member of the cast was even nominated. The oversight owes more to choosing between four equally incredible performances (you can add James Cromwell's duplicitous police captain to the three leads) than any failure on the part of the cast.

The DVD itself includes a number of modest but enticing bells and whistles. In addition to the expected behind-the-scenes material (some of which has been ported over from the original DVD), it includes an insightful audio commentary featuring most of the cast and crew, a music-only track emphasizing Jerry Goldsmith's wonderful score, a separate CD containing six songs from the soundtrack, and the pilot of an aborted TV series -- starring Kiefer Sutherland as Vincennes -- which goes through the motions, but can't tap into the magic. For admirers of the film, the new set is a must-own... at least until the 20th or 25th anniversary comes along and even more goodies are added onto the pile. There's little question as to whether the film itself will last that long. It remains a one-of-a-kind achievement, extraordinary not just for the careers it launched (Crowe never looked back after this one) but for the ways its vision has flourished in the decade since its release. Everything Angelinos love and hate about their city is here, as well as anything a movie fan could possibly wish for... off the record, on the QT, and very hush-hush.

Review published 10.14.2008.

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