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Movie Review

Noir for the '90s

'L.A. Confidential,' a dark tale of intoxicating corruption, is a worthy addition to film genre.

September 19, 1997|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

With all this as backdrop, "L.A. Confidential" kicks into gear with a case big enough to involve the entire police department: the coffee shop shooting deaths of six people, including a policeman, that the press dubs "The Nite Owl Massacre."

Heading the investigation is Capt. Dudley Smith ("Babe's" James Cromwell), an unflappable veteran with a lilting way of calling everyone "boyo." Eventually involved as well are crafty Dist. Atty. Ellis Lowe (Ron Rifkin) and Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn), a mysterious Mr. Big that Hudgens characterizes with typical brio as "a powerful behind-the-scenes strange-o."

Diverse as they sound, all these strands and characters eventually come together as smoothly as the finish on the film's vintage automobiles. Ellroy's nearly 500-page novel has so much plot, in fact, that the author thought it was his least likely book to be filmed. But co-screenwriters Brian Helgeland and Hanson have expertly extracted the essence of the proceedings and boiled them down to a concentrated screen story where appearances are deceptive and nobody gives any information away.

Director Hanson has already demonstrated a command of narrative drive in previous work like "The River Wild" and "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle," and "L.A. Confidential's" clean, relentless storytelling sense, its ability to draw us in while always playing fair with plot details, is its quintessential asset.

Following right behind is strong ensemble acting. Spacey is the essence of corrupt charm, and Basinger provides the film's emotional center as the world-weary femme who's been around more blocks than the Thomas Guide. "L.A. Confidential's" nerviest and most successful decision was using the unknown faces of Crowe and Pearce as two of its key L.A. cops. Anyone who remembers Pearce as the youngest and most flamboyant drag queen in "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" will be impressed at the transformation.

In its locations, its look and its period soundtrack, "L.A. Confidential's" passion for authenticity has paid off. L.A. native Hanson and cinematographer Dante Spinotti opted to shoot in venerable spots like the Formosa Cafe and Hollywood's Frolic Room, and production designer Jeannine Oppewall, set decorator Jay R. Hart and costume designer Ruth Myers have made sure everything else looks right.

The only potential audience drawback "L.A. Confidential" has is its reliance on unsettling bursts of violence, both bloody shootings and intense physical beatings that give the picture a palpable air of menace. Overriding that, finally, is the film's complete command of its material. "L.A. Confidential" believes in itself because its creators got drawn into its wild story, and what an adventure that turns out to be.

* MPAA rating: R for strong violence and language and for sexuality. Times guidelines: bloody shootouts and brutal beatings.

'L.A. Confidential'

Kevin Spacey: Jack Vincennes

Russell Crowe: Bud White

Guy Pearce: Ed Exley

James Cromwell: Capt. Dudley Smith

David Strathairn: Pierce Patchett

Kim Basinger: Lynn Bracken

Danny DeVito: Sid Hudgens

Regency Enterprises presents an Arnon Milchan/David L. Wolper production, released by Warner Bros. Director Curtis Hanson. Producers Arnon Milchan, Curtis Hanson, Michael Nathanson. Executive producers David L. Wolper, Dan Kolsrud. Screenplay Brian Helgeland & Curtis Hanson, based on the novel by James Ellroy. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti. Editor Pete Honess. Costumes Ruth Meyers. Music Jerry Goldsmith. Production design Jeannine Oppewall. Art director Bill Arnold. Set decorator Jay R. Hart. Running time: 2 hours, 16 minutes.

*

* In general release throughout Southern California.

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