L.A. Confidential (1997)
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, James Cromwell, Kim Basinger, David Strathairn, Danny DeVito
Directed By: Curtis Hanson
I’ve been having trouble with how to approach this review since I watched the new two-disc special edition DVD of L.A. Confidential a little over a week ago. Generally, it’s standard reviewing technique to withhold one’s ultimate opinion of the movie until a big flourish at or near the end, parsing out smaller opinions to slowly make one’s case until the big finish (this technique has the added benefit of forcing readers to keep reading until the end). But in this case, I don’t feel like I have anything to say about the movie until I get the big flourish out of the way, so I’m trusting you all to keep reading after I do, so here goes: L.A. Confidential is easily one of the best movies of the past 20 years, an absolute masterpiece that is as fresh today as it was 11 years ago.
Adapted from the book by acclaimed crime novelist James Ellroy, L.A. Confidential is a noir tale about crime and corruption in the 1950s LAPD. Infused with all the glamour of Hollywood Babylon, the movie follows three police officers as they attempt to unravel the mystery of the Nite Owl Killings, a multiple homicide set in a Hollywood coffee shop. As officers Bud White (Russell Crowe), Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce), and Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) pursue the case and cases surrounding the Nite Owl, their stories converge, forcing them to work together to get past the corruption in the city of angels.
In many ways, L.A. Confidential is notable for all the things that it isn’t as much as it’s notable for the things that it is. It’s a crime noir with all the moral ambiguity and femme fatale tropes one expects from the genre, yet it isn’t simply a genre piece. Director Curtis Hanson and cinematographer Dante Spinotti flood the film with the sunlight of California rather than lurking in the traditional shadows of noir, while screenwriters Hanson and Brian Helgeland eschew the hard-boiled dialogue usually found in the genre for a more natural, contemporary sound. The result is a stylish thriller that is more than a mere exercise in style.
The film is a mystery thriller full of twists that doesn’t rely on twists for its thrills. Instead, the film hinges on the masterfully dense plotting and strong performances of its ensemble cast, rather than cheap gotcha moments that generally limit the impact of thrillers to a total of one viewing. This isn’t the case with L.A. Confidential, which is as rewarding to watch the tenth or twentieth time as it is for the first time. Knowing the surprise moments don’t detract from the experience, because the film takes no cheap shortcuts for simple shock value. As complicated a story as it is, its also told in a very economic fashion, without wasted effort or gimmicky filler.
Perhaps the biggest surprise about what L.A. Confidential isn’t is that despite the fact that its a universally acclaimed film that is both complicated and stylish, it doesn’t act as a flashy showcase for its director Curtis Hanson. Usually an auteur would seek to use such a film to show off their signature shots, or to pursue personal themes, making the film a calling card to build their reputation on for future success. Instead, Hanson plays the film straight, concentrating not on furthering his ideas and style but rather on the story of James Ellroy, successfully finding a way to adapt the novel many believed was unadaptable. It’s a truly impressive achievement, illustrating a complete mastery of all elements of the film without ever coming off as showy. Strangely, despite Hanson’s achievement, he didn’t go on to be prominent filmmaker, nor did anything on his resume suggest that he’d be able to turn out such a masterpiece (despite my love for this movie, I haven’t had any desire to see any more of Hanson’s films).
Not that Hanson is alone in having the film as the peak of his career, as the same can be said with everyone associated with the movie, in particular its brilliant ensemble cast. Hanson made the choice to cast fresh faces for the movie, both for story and budgetary reasons. He wanted the audience to go in with no preconceived notions about the characters, avoiding bigger name stars who carry expectations with them. Further, the story is a true ensemble, with the three leads playing equal parts in terms of importance. This balance would have been overthrown had a bigger name been cast for just one of the three male leads.
Instead, he cast then-unknown Australian actors Russell Crowe as the physically intense Bud White and Guy Pearce as the bookish and ambitious Ed Exley. Both actors have since moved on to become stars in America to varying degrees (with Crowe being one of the more famous actors in Hollywood, earning three Best Actor Oscar nominations through the years), but for my money, neither has been better than they are here. The same is true for Kevin Spacey as the smarmy payoff king Jack Vincennes, who was just starting to get attention after his role in The Usual Suspects, and James Cromwell as Captain Dudley Smith, who was just starting to get attention after his role in Babe. If this isn’t the best work of those two men’s careers, it’s certainly up there with those aforementioned films.
At the time of filming, the most famous member of the cast was either a semi-retired Kim Basinger as the call girl with a heart of gold Lynn Bracken, who was 8 years removed from her last hit (Batman), or Danny DeVito as the morally repulsive tabloid writer Sid Hudgens (five years removed from his own Batman role). Neither at the time were big enough stars to sell a movie, and thus each was able to slip into their supporting roles seamlessly without upsetting the balance. Basinger would go on to win a much deserved Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work as the heart of the film, while the rest of the cast seemingly cancelled each other out for nominations for the rest of the film.
My favourite aspect of the film is the chemistry between Crowe’s White and Pearce’s Exley. They are polar opposites, spending most of the film as antagonistic rivals. Crowe plays White as a man bursting at the seams with barely restrained rage, yet offers a glimmer of more than the simple mindless thug that others dismiss him for, while Pearce gives a very restrained performance as the overachieving Exley, a man who seems to put his political gain over everything else, yet offers a glimmer of more than the intellectual poster boy others dismiss him for. Neither realizes that they are two halves of the same coin, and their scenes spark as a result of the tension then eventual acceptance.
A movie just featuring them and their conflict would probably have been very good on its own, but L.A. Confidential becomes great by mixing in their story with Bud and Lynn’s story, and Jack and Sid’s story, and Jack and Ed’s story, and all the other stories that combine to make a remarkably full experience that clocks in at a very manageable 138 minutes. The characters are all given their chances to shine in a movie that is plot-driven by nature, but doesn’t eschew character in favour of advancing the plot. It’s a great balance that many mysteries don’t find, and another example of how Hanson was more interested in servicing the story than his own agenda.
The result is a thoroughly accomplished film that is as exciting as it is acclaimed. It’s intelligent without being too erudite, a masterpiece that isn’t pretentious. It’s a perfect blend of drama, intrigue, period detail, sex, and violence, and as you may have read somewhere, it’s easily one of the best films of the past twenty years.
DVD Review: The big question when dealing with deluxe, anniversary editions of DVDs is whether or not it’s worth it to buy the new version to replace the one that’s already sitting in your collection. It’s a tough question for the two-disc special edition of L.A. Confidential, which is a marked improvement over its predecessor, offering a much better package of special features for fans of the movie, but might not offer enough improvements for most viewers.
The first thing you’ll notice is the packaging, a slicker presentation far more worthy of the film than the cheap, original cardboard flipper that Warner Brothers plagued DVD buyers with for years. I realize this is of little appeal for most buyers, but I’m a bit of an aesthetist when it comes to my collection, not above buying fancier-looking special editions over bare-bones sets even if I sometimes don’t get around to checking out special features. It’s dumb, I know. But if you’re weird like that, then this set is already an improvement.
As much as I love better packaging, even I won’t re-buy a perfectly good DVD just to acquire the more visually appealing object. Instead, the main grounds for replacement for me is improvements in visual and/or audio quality. This is why I’m not sure if this new set is worth it, as there’s no digital remastering done to the DVD, which looks the same as the previous DVD, and contains the same 5.1 audio track. I’m guessing they saved the remastering for the blu-ray release, with the process made a little harder as I assume some of the grainy images at times are meant to be evocative of the era (instead of the result of poor digital transferring).
The set is better when it comes to special features, importing all the features from the previous disc and adding a bunch more. The dumbest feature comes from the original disc, giving the viewer the option to watch the movie with a music only audio track. This is one of those early-DVD ideas when they used to load discs with as many audio tracks as they could think of, an idea that must’ve sounded fun when they thought of it, as the score and soundtrack of the film are two highlights of the film. But who would really watch that? If you’re interested in the music, you could just go buy the score, or better yet, listen to the six-track bonus CD that comes with the Two-Disc Special Edition (effectively making this a three-disc set). The CD is a fun little bonus, not necessarily a selling point for me, but appreciated nonetheless.
Also imported from the original disc is the decent featurette “Off the Record” that provides an overview of the production and the annoying “The L.A. of L.A. Confidential Interactive Map Tour”, which offers a series of short descriptions of locales from the movie that you have to move through interactive graphics to access. It’s another one of those features that shows its age, as when DVD first came out, everyone was looking for creative ways to use GUIs, but in practice aren’t worth the effort
The new special features are significant improvements over these features, including four new featurettes that delve deeper into the film, from details of the production, the cinematography and visual elements, the ensemble cast, and the act of adapting Ellroy’s novel. These features are interview-heavy, with every significant figure from the production chipping in to celebrate their achievement. I enjoyed these featurettes, the sort of indepth looks at the movie that the original DVD release should have offered.
On the minus side is the new audio commentary, featuring every significant figure of the production other than Hanson (who is oddly absent), including Elroy, Crowe, Spacey, Pearce, Basinger, Cromwell, DeVito, David Strathairn, Helgeland, Spinotti, costume designer Ruth Myers, production designer Jeannine Oppewall, and critic/historian Andrew Sarris. That’s a lot of people, none of whom are actually watching the movie and providing a commentary of it. Instead, editors piece together audio clips from interviews with the subjects, most likely from the same sessions as the featurettes are taken from, making the exercise largely redundant after watching the featurettes. There’s some interesting tidbits passed on throughout the commentary, but not enough to make it worth it to listen to disembodied voices that are only tangentially commenting on the stuff on the screen.
The most fun feature is the pilot for the 1999 TV adaptation of Ellroy’s book, starring Keifer Sutherland, Melissa George, Josh Hopkins, David Conrad, Pruitt Taylor Vince, and Eric Roberts. I’d heard about this pilot before, so it was interesting to finally get a chance to see it. And now that I have, I’m glad I’ll never get a chance to watch it again, because it was abysmal. Loaded with clichés with laughable production values, it was a tough viewing for anything other than ironic enjoyment (plus it was rather disconcerting seeing Keifer Sutherland playing another reckless law enforcement character named Jack, this time Vincennes instead of Bauer). So watch it, have a laugh, and thank the stars that it was never given the chance to sully the legacy of the superior film.
So is it worth buying if you already have L.A. Confidential? Yes if you’re big on special features and better looking packaging, or if your original copy is worn down. But if you generally skip special features, or are ambivalent toward them, then there’s no significant upgrade here other than a bonus disc of six songs or the curiosity factor for the terrible TV adaptation.