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Noir 'Confidential': A Clever Case

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 19, 1997

  Movie Critic

L.A. Confidential
Guy Pearce fights crime and dishonest police officers in "L.A. Confidential." (Warner Bros.)

Curtis Hanson
Kevin Spacey;
Danny DeVito;
Kim Basinger;
Russell Crowe;
Guy Pearce;
James Cromwell;
David Strathairn
Running Time:
2 hours, 18 minutes
Nudity, considerable violence, profanity and sexual situations
Supporting Actress (Kim Basinger); Adapted Screenplay
In the roundly entertaining "L.A. Confidential," a gravely concerned Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) pulls Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) aside. The veteran supervisor throws this bespectacled junior detective some pointed questions.

Is Ed willing to plant corroborative evidence on a suspect he knows to be guilty? Is he willing to beat a confession out of that same person, or shoot him in the back? Ed makes it clear such acts would be unthinkable.

"Then, for the love of God," says the mortified Smith, "don’t be a detective."

Welcome to one of the most enjoyable shoot’em-ups of the year, a complex moral opera set in 1950s Los Angeles, where cops, hookers, tabloid journalists and gangsters slosh together through the day-to-day quagmire.

Exley, a new golden boy at the L.A.P.D., is determined to make it to the top of the heap, no matter who’s in his way. But his sanctimonious ambition brings him into conflict with everyone, including Capt. Smith, who has a more experienced view of law enforcement; detective Bud White (Russell Crowe), who would definitely beat a confession out of a guilty scum; and Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), a cop-cum-operator who works as a technical consultant for a popular TV cop show.

When a nightclub massacre leaves six dead, including a former cop, three "negro juveniles" are arrested soon thereafter. But this apparently cut-and-dried case leads to more insidious developments.

Also figuring in this expanding mystery are Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), editor of a sleazy tabloid called Hush-Hush, who gets tips ahead of time of celebrity arrests, and Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), a call girl and Veronica Lake lookalike, who seems to be connected to sleazy businessman Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn).

Despite their antagonism toward each other -- exacerbated by their mutual attraction to Lynn -- Exley and White link up to get to the bottom of it all.

Based on James Ellroy’s novel, this movie gives us all the things we semiconsciously crave in such dramas: Machiavellian figures behind the scenes, double dealings, hard information from sleazy sources, dirty politicians, haunted and beautiful women, and detectives with one foot in law enforcement and the other in moral ambiguity.

There are so many things to enjoy here. Director Curtis Hanson, who helmed "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" and "The River Wild," and adapted "L.A. Confidential" with Brian Helgeland, keeps a complex story coherent and absorbing -- if bloody at the end. Pearce makes a wonderful prude who gets progressively tougher and more jaded. New Zealand-born Crowe has a unique and sexy toughness; imagine Mickey Rourke without the attitude. Although she’s playing a stock character, Basinger exudes a sort of chaste sultriness. Spacey is always enjoyable.

"L.A. Confidential" also observes the golden rule established by the old-time detective flicks: Fill the movie with quotable comments whenever possible. Between the machine-gunnings and the plot twists, there’s always something verbal to savor, such as this: "Don’t start trying to do the right thing, boyo," says one very significant player. "You haven’t had the practice."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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