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Film Review: Life, love, and death in Los Angeles

L.A. Confidential

Directed by Curtis Hanson.

Written by Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland, based on the novel by James Ellroy.

Starring Kevin Spacey, Russel Crowe, Guy Pearce, James Cromwell, Danny DeVito, and Kim Basinger.

By Vladimir Zelevinsky
Staff Reporter

It's hard to review really good films. Bad ones are so much easier: they're linear and simple and can be summed up in neat little phrases like "A man gets involved with a wrong woman and it puts him into many tight situations" or "An idealistic cop brings down the corrupted organization." Both descriptions apply to the two (of many) plot strands of L.A. Confidential, but this movie defies neat summarizing. Even the genre is hard to determine: mystery-drama-satire-action-noir is the best I can think of.

Set in the early fifties, the movie centers on three detectives from the LAPD: Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is the by-the-book cop whose firm adherence to the rules paradoxically puts him into a morally ambiguous position; Bud White (Russel Crowe) believes that all means are fair to enforce the laws, even breaking them; Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) seems to greatly prefer his side job as a technical adviser to a police TV show to actually being a policeman. And there's a lot going around these three: there's a high-profile scandal about the treatment of suspects; Bud develops an interest (perhaps too much of it for his own good) in a call girl Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger); there's a grisly murder in a local diner; police department chief Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) is concerned with escalating mob warfare in L.A.; and there's a pesky tabloid reporter Sid Hudgeons (Danny DeVito) snooping around.

All of this is tremendously interesting. The dialogue sparkles with wit and intensity. The action, and there's quite bit of it, is exciting, and the acting even more so. There's not a single weak role in the cast. Pearce, Crowe, Spacey and Cromwell are spectacular, and the rest of the cast (even Kim Basinger) is solid.

And the plot - oh my, what a plot. A half dozen strands weave their way through the fabric of this movie, and it's a joy to follow them. There's a murder mystery, a love story, an action thriller, a psychological drama, a period piece, and a sharp satirical look on glistening appearances, gilded surfaces and guilty secrets of Hollywood. This should be credited as much to James Ellroy, who wrote the novel, as to Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland, who adapted the screenplay.

Director Hanson, whose previous movie was the bland The River Wild, does a great job here; his direction is both elegant and tight. The movie's tendency to stop and have one or the other character summarize the latest plot developments is slightly off-putting; it creates the impression that the movie doesn't think we're smart enough to understand it. And the said plot, while complex, is never confusing - but you shouldn't go for the large soda because you don't want to miss a minute.

Technical credits are equally as accomplished. L.A. of the fifties is recreated with careful attention to details; both sets, cinematography, musical score, and costumes are extremely impressive.

L.A. Confidential might be the first movie this year to be a prominent Oscar contender. Of course, the Season of Big Movies is barely starting, but this might be the first of them. And if I'm right, remember, you first read it here in The Tech; confidential and strictly hush-hush.