Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential is a throwback in nearly every way: in setting, in style, in performance, in storytelling. Based on James Ellroy’s absurdly sprawling novel, the film—easily Hanson’s best (hell, it’s his only good one, really—condenses the novel’s unfilmable narrative into a comparatively straightforward tale of drugs, murder and the ethical morass in which the film’s cops and criminals find themselves.
The audience’s entry point into the whole mess is Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), a self-righteous, politically astute young officer who must reconcile his code of behavior with reality while investigating the murders of several people—including an ex-detective—at a local coffee shop. The dark side of police work is embodied by two detectives Exley works with in the investigation: Bud White (Russell Crowe), a tortured lug whose methods frequently cross the line into brutality, and Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), an advisor on a popular cop show who long ago sold out his badge making celebrity arrests for the editor of a sleazy tabloid (Danny DeVito).
The film’s undeniable pull can be attributed to both its traditionally gripping narrative—which expands to include the head of a porn empire (David Strathairn), the corrupt police chief (James Cromwell) and White’s relationship with a high-class prostitute (Kim Basinger, failing to embarrass herself and winning an Oscar for the effort)—and to how it maps out the ways in which its heroes adjust their moral codes.
L.A. Confidential understands that men don’t always respond to evil with good and that the question of whom society regards as heroes isn’t always a clear cut as it seems. But while Brian Helgeland’s screenplay, like so much neo-noir, seeks to expose the seedy underbelly of the glamour of Los Angeles in the 1950s, the film’s shiny Hollywood surfaces too frequently weaken its intentions. The filmmaking is competent and engaging but middlebrow, and Dante Spinotti’s cinematography is striking but too clean to achieve Chinatown-level subversion. And the film’s conclusion, with Bud showing up in an uplifting last-minute reveal, is so falsely sunny that it very nearly undermines the film’s up-to-that-point admirable sense of darkness and moral confusion.