L.A. Confidential (1997)

My first choice to direct an adaptation of a James Ellroy novel would not be Curtis Hanson. He's basically a director-for-hire (not that that's a bad thing) who just takes whatever he's given and puts it on screen with little imagination or style. If you've read James Ellroy, you know that his novels are all imagination and style and hard-charging, blackly funny, gut-punching action. Hanson, on the other hand, is the director of the crap-fests The Hand that Rocks the Cradle and The River Wild. Films that play on rather mindless levels of low-grade suspense: "Will the crazy killer be around the next corner?" Brian Helgeland, the hack screenwriter of Conspiracy Theory wouldn't be my first choice to co-write either.

All of my doubts about the two men are confirmed by the flawed film L.A. Confidential is.

For a long while after seeing the film, I just couldn't decide what I thought. I thought I might want to see the film again, sitting farther back in the theater to get a literally new perspective on it. I also read the novel a long time ago, and hadn't wanted to reread it in case it might spoil the experience of the film for me. This review should definitely be read with these cautions. L.A. Confidential left me conflicted.

The things I'm not conflicted about are many. The acting in the film is uniformly superb, even from Kim Basinger, who hasn't done anything good since Batman. The art direction and cinematography are stunning, though Hanson takes rather moderate advantage of these strengths. The material, Ellroy's novel, is the major factor contributing to the strengths the films does exploit.

I believe the major problems are all found in the adaptation from novel to screen.

The story of L.A. Confidential is a complex play of power among people who live outside of society's ethics. Criminals and corrupt cops, movie stars, prostitutes, pimps and tabloid reporters. Russell Crowe (The Sum of Us, The Quick and the Dead) plays Bud White, a tough cop who hates violence against women and is dedicated to stopping all of it he can. He's a physical powerhouse, solving crimes often by bringing them to violent confrontations, which he wins. Kevin Spacey plays "Trashcan" Jack Vincennes, the least developed character, a Hollywood cop who is an adviser on a "Dragnet"-like TV show and who engineers high-profile busts with Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), the editor of the tabloid Hush-Hush. And Guy Pearce (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) is Ed Exley, a supposedly principled cop trying to live up to his detective father's memory. A mass murder in a coffee shop, known as the Night Owl Massacre, and the subsequent investigation, lead these three men into conflict with each other, a weird movie-star lookalike prostitution ring, and L.A. Police Chief Dudley Smith (James Cromwell of Babe).

I understand that things have to be left out of movies made from thick books when they are transferred to the screen, but if this redaction is all that goes on, it's got to ultimately fail. The effort has to be made to capture the attitude and style of the fiction on screen. By all rights, L.A. Confidential should look and feel darker, make you laugh at things that aren't funny, punch you in the gut and leave you breathless. It's a tall order, but Ellroy has given the filmmakers the interesting creative problem of making such a film. They largely squander that potential. They cut too much, they make it too cute, they invent devices which are too clever by half to get across information they could have conveyed with dialogue or by picking up the pace.

There are a few exceptions. The shootout at the end is a great scene until the end. Kim Basinger's role is given the kind of attention it deserves. Spacey's performance allows a lot of room for certain plot points to be glossed over. And some of the atmosphere is right, though it's choppy.

Overall, L.A. Confidential is a good film, probably better to watch if you haven't read the book. But after you've seen it, if you want more, darker, less easy, check out some uncut Ellroy.

Links for L.A. Confidential

Internet Movie Database Entry

Roger Ebert Review


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