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.
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.