A glamorous, alluring entertainment that revels in the artifice of Hollywood while exposing its corrupt heart, "L.A. Confidential" pays stylish homage to some of the great film noirs of the distant and recent past.
If this latest permutation on the form doesn't always clear the bar set by its predecessors, that shouldn't detract from its 'u attractions -- a cast of good young actors playing sharply drawn characters, enough of a mystery to keep interested parties interested and a ripe, lustrous look that bathes 1950s Los Angeles in a burnished, nostalgic glow.
With its sophisticated look and none-too-taxing story, "L.A. Confidential" makes an ideal transitional film between the noise of summer and autumn's crisper standards.
The story, based on the 1990 novel "L.A. Confidential" by James Ellroy, revolves around the Los Angeles Police Department of the early 1950s, a time when officers thought nothing of planting incriminating evidence, colluding with the press for money and fame and brutalizing prisoners with racist and sadistic regularity (any resemblance to present-day events is, presumably, strictly coincidental).
When gang leader Mickey Cohen is jailed, a vacuum opens up for L.A.'s criminal element, whose members swiftly begin fighting for control of his drug and pornography empire. Stemming the tide against the mayhem (and periodically aiding and abetting it) are three of L.A.'s finest: Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), a narcotics detective known for taking a bribe or two from a tabloid journalist in exchange for setting up a bust; Bud White (Russell Crowe), who wants to be a detective but is more valued for his brawn than his brain; and Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), a straight-arrow who would sell his best friend down the river to get ahead, if he had a best friend.
The real action commences after a mass murder at an all-night coffee shop, when the three rival officers -- singly and together -- set about investigating the case. Along the way they will cross paths with L.A.'s seedier element, including a mysterious Veronica Lake look-alike (Kim Basinger), a wealthy developer (David Strathairn) and said tabloid journalist, Sid Hudgens, who hovers like a turkey vulture over the sleazy proceedings.
This last touch makes for a terrific framing device, but it's virtually destroyed by the casting of Danny DeVito, who lays into Hudgens' voiceover with a cartoonish growl that mars the film's otherwise silky mood. Where everyone else is smooth -- especially Basinger, whose hypnotic beauty balances a wonderfully unmannered performance, and Strathairn in a vulpine turn as her Svengali -- DeVito provides all the subtlety of a raspberry.
Curtis Hanson, who directed "L.A. Confidential" from a script he adapted with Brian Helgeland, has a great deal of fun with Hollywood's historical meshing of the glamorous and the corrupt: Lana Turner, Johnny Stompanato and Chet Baker all show up for cameos.
But this pop sensibility also has the effect of robbing "L.A. Confidential" of power. The film may mine the great genre films of the past, right up to "Chinatown," with allusions to broken noses and public works projects, but it doesn't achieve their heft. Hanson is largely content just to spit back the conventions: violence, obsession, sex and a little angst.
Still, those conventions are spit back note-perfectly, and due credit must be paid to cinematographer Dante Spinotti, costume designer Ruth Myers and production designer Jeannine Oppewall for outstanding work in creating the bright, lurid look of Confidential."
Like the best of noir, the cynics of "L.A. Confidential" stay cynical to the end, even when they're being good guys solving a mystery. And the filmmakers relish juxtaposing the buoyant promise of Los Angeles with its debauched flip side.
But despite all of its surface appeal, "L.A. Confidential" never plunges too deeply into the story's darker places, leaving the audiences with a lightweight, if handsome, diversion.
Starring Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, James Cromwell, Kim Basinger, David Strathairn
Directed by Curtis Hanson
Released by Warner Bros.
Rated R (violence, profanity, sexuality)
Sun score: ***
Pub Date: 9/19/97