July 25, 2012 by abbyo
“L.A. Confidential” comes with a lot of high regard. It’s repeatedly hailed as one of the best movies of 1997, a year in which the other big contenders included “Titanic,” “The Game” and “Boogie Nights.” It was also a star-making vehicle for Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, both relative unknowns at the time. But most of all, “L.A. Confidential” is famous for the quality of its script. I wouldn’t say it’s the best of its kind (look to Robert Towne’s “Chinatown” script for that), but it’s surprisingly solid, especially given its pedigree. Director Curtis Hanson’s best-known films (other than this one) are the Eminem biopic “8 Mile” and the Lifetime channel favorite “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle.” Hanson co-wrote the screenplay with prolific scribe Brian Helgeland. Helgeland’s other notable works include “A Knight’s Tale” (which he also directed), and…wait for it…“The Postman,” which was released that same year, meaning Helgeland could likely have written both the best and worst movies of 1997 at the same time. The mind boggles.
Based on a James Ellroy novel—perhaps the real reason for its quality—“L.A. Confidential” is a noir that takes corrupt cops, tabloid journalists, victimized prostitutes, and creepy millionaires and weaves them all into a story that’s as complex as the characters it introduces. At the center of the film are three cops (Crowe, Pearce and Kevin Spacey), each with their own approach to police work. Spacey is a seasoned pro who also serves as a technical advisor on a “Dragnet”-style show, and snags headlines with his high-profile arrests, courtesy of a sleazy tabloid editor (Danny DeVito) who pays Spacey under the table for the photo ops. Crowe’s character is a younger cop with an anger management problem, adjustable ethics and a mysterious penchant for helping out battered women. Rounding them out is Pearce’s straight-arrow department climber, who has hopes of joining the detective bureau, and straightening out the corrupt LAPD by any means possible.
The plot is set off by a series of events that at first appear unrelated, but eventually get wound together into a Gordian knot of nastiness that irrevocably changes the lives and values of the three men involved. Associates of a known crime boss are shot in gangland-style executions. A massacre at an all-night coffee shop kills both Crowe’s ex-partner (whom Pearce was responsible for firing) and a prostitute working for a service that specializes in starlet lookalikes. The three young black men originally suspected of the crime are also responsible for abducting, raping and holding captive a young Hispanic woman, but it feels as though their guilt for both crimes is all-too-convenient. Spacey, Crowe and Pearce, all of whom smell a rat, are thrown together to get to the bottom of the crimes, despite the fact that none of them get along, and Pearce in particular stands to gain a lot for his reputation by letting sleeping dogs lie.
The best thing about “L.A. Confidential” is that although none of the main three cops depicted are entirely clean, honorable individuals, they’re not monsters, either. Each of the characters seems to have more going on than they first appear to. Spacey loves the limelight, but recognizes that his eagerness to stay there has lingering consequences. Although Crowe is a hothead, and willing to do pretty much anything the department asks of him, he’s also got a strong sense of right and wrong, illustrated by his drive to put away pimps and wife-beaters. And Pearce constantly wavers between an idealistic desire for cleanly-executed justice, and displaying an unnerving ability for self-preservation and spin.
But there are problems here, too, that take “L.A. Confidential” from “great” to “almost-great” status. While most of the film’s criminal plots are resolved, and done so in a clearly-followed way, there are one or two that never reach a satisfactory conclusion. The “big twist,” in which the true villain behind the series of crimes is revealed, isn’t much of a surprise at all (although you could argue that the point of noir isn’t the reveal, but the journey it takes to get us there). There are extraneous characters who we’re told are important, but then are all but dropped from the movie. Then there’s Pearce’s character’s tacked-on motivation that makes a sudden appearance in the third act, which appears in an attempt to redeem the character right after he’s pulled a particularly shady stunt. For everything that’s good about the movie, there’s something else that betrays filmmaking and screenwriting that’s better than basic, but a far cry from brilliant.
It’s easy to see why “L.A. Confidential” is considered such a good movie. It’s very sharp-looking, peopled with interesting characters, and has a juicy, high-stakes story that’s got plenty of sex, murder and internal conflict. But it falls just short of exemplary. When you’re working from a novel by James Ellroy, who knows his way around conflicted characters and wild plots (not to mention L.A. in Hollywood’s golden age), it doesn’t take much work to create a good story. When you add performances from top-notch actors who know how to communicate that conflict, it takes even less work. There’s a lot to respect about this movie, but the problems reveal writing and filmmaking that isn’t quite up to the task of carrying all of that potential through to the end. The problems of “L.A. Confidential” go a little way towards showing why this film is the high-water mark in both Hanson’s and Helgeland’s careers. It’s not an anomaly, or the work of artists at the height of their abilities. It’s just a product of two guys who happened to have all the right resources at the right time.