In the voluptuously engrossing L.A. Confidential (Warner Bros.), the corruption does more than burn with white-hot fervor; it becomes a life force unto itself. As the credits appear, we’re treated to idyllic newsreel images of Los Angeles in the ’50s (orange groves, sun-kissed revelers), set to the jaunty sounds of Johnny Mercer singing ”Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive.” A narrator, smirky and blunt — it’s Danny DeVito in full oily cry — smacks his lips as he describes a gruesome series of gangland murders. Adapted from James Ellroy’s hallucinatory crime novel, L.A. Confidential doesn’t waste time trying to pull the wool over our eyes. It lets us know from the start that the California dream is a billboard plastered over a rats’ nest — a paradise built on blood and sleaze. Like Chinatown, the 1974 classic of Los Angeles depravity, this is the rare night-world thriller that understands what bad impulses can do to good men. Even the heroes have to get down in the muck to take on the devil.
On a lonely Christmas night, Officer Bud White (Russell Crowe), handsome and tan, but with the hooded eyes of a street thug, stops an episode of drunken domestic violence by enthusiastically beating the hell out of the perpetrator. White prides himself on protecting women, but he has some rather extreme ideas about chivalry. Meanwhile, Det. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), a puckish smoothy with the gleam of fast cash in his eye, receives money under the table for providing tip-offs to Sid Hudgens (DeVito), a reporter/ voyeur who publishes Hush-Hush, a scandal sheet that features crimes that exist mainly to be sold to the public as dirty thrills. Gossip and greed and sheer viciousness conjoin under the banner of ”morality.” Merry Christmas!
Then, just maybe, a white knight appears. Edward Exley is a rookie cop who doesn’t look like a cop. He looks like the sexiest junior history professor at Yale, and he intends to be a heroic officer strictly by the book. Exley is played by the startlingly handsome Guy Pearce, who has cold, clear eyes, a grin that’s toothier than you expect, and a delicately intense manner that leaves his words echoing in the air like music. In L.A. Confidential, Pearce dramatizes intellectual vivacity with more power than any actor I’ve seen in years. When Exley’s fellow officers haul a couple of illegal Mexican immigrants into the station and beat them up for the sheer thrill of it — an incident that eerily echoes the recent police-brutality scandal in New York City — Exley is the only one on the scene eager to testify against them. By ratting out his fellow cops, he knows he’s making a precinct house full of enemies, but he seizes the chance to manipulate his way into a promotion to detective. So, the college boy is a player after all. But can even he survive on intelligence alone?
The plot of L.A. Confidential is a maze of sordidness that leads from the Mexican-bashing imbroglio to a mysterious multiple homicide in a diner to the activities of a wealthy pimp/pornographer (David Strathairn), who provides a special, kinky service: girls who’ve been ”cut” by a plastic surgeon to resemble movie stars. When the diner murders are pinned on some inner-city blacks, we see the racism of the cops in all its casual ugliness. Ellroy is sly about setting this fully ripened immorality in the past, knowing — with a wink — that he’s also depicting the present. Like most of Ellroy’s novels, L.A. Confidential is a dark-side-of-the-moon reverie, a neo-Chandler pulp fantasia that wears its rotting organs on the outside. The movie, directed with feral authority by Curtis Hanson (who cowrote the script with Brian Helgeland), weaves an underground web of cops, criminals, politicians, tabloid blackmailers, and, of course, a femme fatale: Kim Basinger as a lonely hooker who works as Strathairn’s ”Veronica Lake.” This is the first film that has truly gotten Ellroy on screen, and, in many ways, it’s a sleeker and more pleasurable experience than his hard-boiled-bebop prose. With its plot that zigs and zags like knife slashes, its cynicism stoked to the melting point, the movie brings the thrill of corruption crackingly to life.
As the strands tie together, they gather like a noose around anyone who dares get close to the truth. It was an inspired touch to cast Pearce and Crowe, both from Australia, as Exley and White. After squaring off in hatred, the two end up working as a yin-and-yang team — brains and brawn, instinct and brute force. It’s Spacey, though, as the strutting Vincennes, a tomcat roiling in self-disgust, who delivers the film’s most memorable line. Asked why he became a cop, he pauses, gazes into the distance, and says, with blank sadness, ”I don’t remember.” Then he gets his chance to remember. L.A. Confidential shows us what it takes to find your honor in a world that’s lost its soul. A