L.A. Confidential (1997)
Wow, this film's already 10 years old! I can remember seeing it a couple of years after its release, and I was blown away at the time. 'L.A. Confidential', directed by Curtis Hanson (who seemingly hasn't made anything nearly as good since) and based on the book by James Ellroy, is a modern classic that doesn't diminish one bit on subsequent viewings.
Set in 1950s Los Angeles, the story revolves around three police officers (who aren't exactly buddies) - Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), an ambitious, political up and comer in the department who strictly abides by the rules, Bud White (Russel Crowe), a hulking brute of a man known for his penchant for violence and who harbours a desire to become a detective, and Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), a suave attention seeking narcotics officer known for his affiliation with a popular TV police drama. These three officers' paths begin to cross following a massacre at a diner which each of them investigates in his own capacity, together with several smaller investigations that appear to be tangentially connected to the massacre. The investigation, led by the stern police captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell), leads our heroes into the seedy, lascivious, corrupt, violent, and racist dark alleys of society. They cross paths with Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), the editor of a sleazy tabloid, Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn), proprietor of a call girl agency and possibly involved in something far more sinister, and Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), one of Patchett's call girls who gets caught up in the investigation. Alliances are formed, fists and bullets fly, and the body count piles up as the mysteries are resolved.
I haven't really even attempted to explain the complex, twisty turny plot of the film; that little introduction will have to suffice, as explaining it in detail would require several more paragraphs and / or a better writer than me (or is it I?). The plot is quite labyrinthine and the story comes at you thick and fast with barely a moment to draw breath, but despite this Brian Helgeland's script never feels overly confusing. It also manages to layer in many of the tawdrier aspects of 1950s LA as well as build up some fairly rich and rounded characters, and both of these elements are not only well integrated into the story but are in many ways essential aspects of it. Exley, White, and Vincennes are all men who, at some level, are unhappy with the status quo and the way they've conducted themselves thus far; all three seek to prove their worth and perhaps gain a little redemption along the way. Their styles clash with each other's and their approaches are completely different but their ultimate goals remain the same - to solve the crime and bring justice to the victims, even if that involves butting heads along the way.
Being a period piece, atmosphere and detail are essential elements, and 'L.A. Confidential' doesn't drop the ball in those departments. It's steeped in atmosphere and the look and feel of every element of the film rings true (how true I can't say for sure, but from what I've read the filmmakers got most things right). The costumes, sets, locations, and character mannerisms all seem to fit together perfectly to re-create a bygone era. The aggressive musical score is also perfectly appropriate and serves to enhance the atmosphere as well as to punctuate storytelling beats. Director Curtis Hanson did a fantastic job in not only realizing all the excellent elements of the film, but in combining them all together so compellingly into the storyline without ever overpowering it.
Hanson also did a great job in assembling such an amazing cast for the film, which is excellent from top to bottom - even the most minor of roles is well played. DeVito is conniving and reprehensible but entertaining as Hudgens, proprietor of 'Hush Hush' magazine. James Cromwell played against type (at least at the time) as the tough, cool and calculating Captain Smith, and he's full of menace in the role. David Strathairn only has a few scenes as the aloof Patchett, but he makes an impression. Kim Basinger, an actress not generally associated with great acting, is fantastic in the role of Lynn Bracken, the call girl with a softer side hidden beneath a poised and seductive facade.
Which brings us to the central trio, who are simply brilliant. Pearce and Crowe were relative unknowns when this film was made and they really made an impression, while Spacey solidified his reputation after the success of 'The Usual Suspects'. Pearce is initially almost detestable as the smart-aleck cop Ed Exley, but his innate sense of honour and his dogged determination to learn the truth come across such that by the film's end he's well and truly the hero. Crowe is like a raging tempest in the role of Bud White, a man who's ready to explode into violence at a moment's notice; despite his brutish nature he also has a far more sympathetic side and a streak of intelligence, both of which are brought across with subtlety. Spacey's Vincennes is the character you can get behind from the get go, as he's simply cool and full of charisma right throughout despite the morally dubious activities he engages in, and his ultimate sense of regret and sincerity in his efforts later on make him that much more memorable.
Many have likened 'L.A. Confidential' to 'Chinatown', which I wrote about here. There are indeed many similarities in terms of setting, tone, character types and even plot, but this feels like a different film altogether despite those similarities. I enjoyed it more because of its more sympathetic protagonists and its less bleak ending. Both films are excellent and like 'Chinatown', 'L.A. Confidential' is a classic and a must see.