Warner Bros. // 1997 // 138 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Nicholas Sylvain (Retired) // September 27th, 1999
Everything is suspect, everyone is for sale, and nothing is what it seems.
Evoking in immense detail the look and spirit of Los Angeles and Hollywood in the early 1950s, with a stunningly talented acting ensemble and a compelling story, L.A. Confidential is an absolutely reference quality film noir and a DVD that still sets a standard that few discs meet.
This is a film that will make a critic's word processor melt with the warmth of superlatives, and give people a reason to buy into DVD. Passed over for the Best Picture Oscar in favor of the special effects goliath Titanic, L.A. Confidential has a much more difficult task in captivating and thrilling us because it does not have the impressive spectacle of a sinking passenger liner to distract us from any flaws. Instead, we have a film that superbly details the look and feel of a place and time, but in contrast to many period films (including Titanic) the characters here are not forced to project current sensibilities onto their period characters. The entire cast is a seamless part of the environment, and they all are very comfortable in their roles, and it shows.
Only Kim Basinger won an Oscar for her part, but any of her colleagues could have merited the statue. I cannot single out any one performance among the major characters, as the whole ensemble is acting at a first-class level. These dynamic actors portray complex characters, with shifting loyalties, hidden motivations, and inner demons, in powerful, convincing fashion. Kevin Spacey is a witty, stylish pleasure as always, and little-known Australian actors Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce are like jewels in the Outback. One item I must point out -- if you have only seen James Cromwell in Babe, then you'd better fasten your seatbelt for L.A. Confidential.
The story, well, as my synopsis below hopefully indicates, this is on par with the acting. The other Oscar that L.A. Confidential won was for writing, and deservedly so. In addition to painting such a vivid picture of the life and times of Los Angeles, the story will enthrall you as it shows the characters working their way through the twists and turns of greed, glamour, and ambition. Some scenes will make you smile, others will make you marvel, and at least one or two should make you jump out of your skin in surprise. It never preaches, never hits you over the head with a message, and never feeds you pabulum with a spoon. The script respects your intelligence, and treats you as an honored guest. Too few scripts can make this claim.
So how do we get from start to finish?
Scandal-sheet editor ("Hush Hush Magazine") and general sleaze Sid Hudgeons (Danny DeVito) narrates the introduction with wicked pleasure, showing us both the public image and seamy underbelly of post-World War II Los Angeles. Mickey Cohen (Paul Guilfoyle) runs the L.A. mob, but his activities are so public that this stain on the image of L.A. must be eliminated. So, as Sid says, what is good enough for Al Capone is good enough for the Mickster, and Mickey C is packed off for a ten year prison term for income tax evasion. This leaves a power vacuum in the criminal underworld, which bodes ill for the future.
With the stage set, the three main characters are introduced. It's Christmas Eve, and Officer Bud White (Russell Crowe) has a list, except on this one, "everyone's been naughty," as his drunken partner Dick Stensland (Graham Beckel) puts it. Bud finds a wife-beater recently paroled from San Quentin up to his old tricks, and administers a little street justice to the dirt-bag (who is soon to be back in San Quentin!).
Sgt. Ed (Edmund) Exley (Guy Pearce) is watch commander of the Hollywood Station, and on the verge of a promotion to Lieutenant. He is very much a political animal, and trying to fill the shoes of his late father, the "legendary" Preston Exley. Ed wants to be Detective Lieutenant, but Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) tries to dissuade him, as Ed doesn't have the stomach that Captain Smith believes a Detective should have.
Sgt. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is a flashy, spotlight-loving narcotics officer whose specialty is nabbing movie stars for front-page busts (with a little help and payoff cash from Sid Hudgeons) and serving as technical advisor to the straight-arrow cop TV show "Badge of Honor" (basically "Dragnet" by another name). Christmas Eve is prime time for another set-up, and after a tip from Sid, Jack nabs small time star Matt Reynolds (Simon Baker-Denny) for felony marijuana possession. While Jack is booking in his movie-star pot bust, the station is buzzing with anger over two officers who were assaulted by some suspects. Alcohol and anger are a very bad mix, and led by Dick Stensland a pack of officers assault the suspects in bloody fashion, with both Bud White and Jack Vincennes being dragged into the melee as well.
In the aftermath of "Bloody Christmas," the Police Chief (John Mahon) and D.A. Ellis Loew (Ron Rifkin) are anxious to erase the stain from the public image of L.A. Bud White won't snitch and is suspended, but Exley is eager to testify (and claim his promotion), while "Hollywood" Jack Vincennes is forced into cooperating (in order to keep his prized role on "Badge of Honor.") Some old-timers with secure pensions are forced to retire, but Dick Stensland is targeted for indictment and prison. Bud White is rescued from suspension by Captain Smith, who has selected Bud for a "muscle job" as an unwelcome wagon for mobsters who come to L.A. and attempt to set up shop.
Detective Lieutenant Ed Exley is not exactly welcomed at the Detective Bureau, so he is all alone when he gets the call about a multiple homicide at the downtown Night Owl coffee shop. Captain Smith soon arrives to take over the case, to Exley's annoyance, and both learn that amidst the pile of corpses is the late Dick Stensland. Bud White decides to investigate his partner's death, and begins by having a personal chat with Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn), a wealthy businessman who runs a prostitution ring specializing in movie-star look-alikes, one of whom, Susan Lefferts (Amber Smith) was also murdered at the Night Owl. Humoring Officer White, Patchett points him in the direction of Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger). Lynn is quite captivating but not terribly informative, so Bud returns to his hunt.
Sgt. Vincennes, scenting a chance to make a major case, is unexpectedly helped by Lt. Exley, and with good fortune they locate a trio of Night Owl suspects and arrest them in short order. Exley's masterful interrogation (with a little direct help by an enraged Bud White) discovers that the trio were involved in a kidnapping and rape of a woman just before the Night Owl massacre, and that the woman is still being held. Avenging Angel Bud White rushes to the rescue, rescuing the battered woman, Inez Soto (Marisol Padilla Sánchez), and metes out justice to her remaining kidnapper. No sooner is the victim packed off in an ambulance then the radio announces that the Night Owl suspects have escaped from custody.
On a hunch, Ed Exley hunts down an address of an associate of theirs, and finds the trio hiding out, but an innocent mistake leads to a bloodbath. "Shotgun" Ed comes out on top, and a hero to boot, winning the LAPD's highest honor. Life goes on, but Bud White seems less than his usual self, instead spending his time falling deeper and deeper for Lynn Bracken. Sid Hudgeons is still looking for ever more dirt, this time setting up D.A. Loew with disgraced Matt Reynolds, aiming to have Sgt. Vincennes catch the pair up to "all kinds of criminal activity" at a motel later that night. Instead of finding a Hush-Hush cover story, Jack finds only a very deceased Matt Reynolds.
Bud is still on the trail of the Night Owl killers, and begins to turn up more clues about his late partner and the equally late Susan Lefferts. Lt. Exley is not too far behind, working the case on his own time, but he knows that he needs help to break the case. Approaching Sgt. Vincennes, Exley strikes a deal, agreeing to help Jack to solve the murder of Matt Reynolds if Jack helps Ed dig deeper into the Night Owl massacre. Jack digs deep into an endless stack of files, while Ed tracks down Lynn Bracken with sexual (and well photographed, thanks to Sid Hudgeons) results.
Events take a shocking turn (which I dare not spoil here!), which lead to Bud White learning about Ed's dalliance with Lynn Bracken. As expected, Bud is stoked to a white-hot rage directed against Ed, until Ed desperately manages to convince Bud to join forces against their mutual enemy and the true killer of Dick Stensland. Determined efforts lead only to more bodies as loose ends begin to be tied up. A tense, thrilling shoot-out at the abandoned Victory Motel is a bloody, hard-fought affair where at last the truth is revealed and the guilty are brought to account. In the end, public resolution of this most messy and sordid affair is deftly handled by Ed Exley, ever the political operator, as our heroes go their separate ways. Fade to black.
The anamorphic transfer is first-rate. The picture is properly sharp and clear, with deep blacks, excellent shadow detail, and richly saturated colors. I looked very closely, but did not detect any dirt, scratches, or defects in the film, nor did I notice any shimmering or moiré patterns. This is what you get when a studio (Warner, in this case) makes a conscious decision to put a quality product out the door, and not just rehash an old transfer. The only problem, and you have to be a picky reviewer to notice, is slight video noise that becomes visible in a few, lower light scenes.
Audio is good, but you won't find it among the 5.1 reference library. This is not due to any real fault in the mix, but rather a reflection of the genre and the score. Film noir should never beat you over the head with a big-budget, effects coming from all directions while the subwoofer knocks paint from the walls sort of mix anyway, because that's not the point. The style, mood, and characters need only the right mix of action and period music to make the film work, and such is the case here. The action scenes are sonically impressive, with excellent channel effects, a wide soundstage, and frequent use of the subwoofer to give the punches and gunshots (especially the shotguns!) a nice bass kick. Elsewhere, the music and effects are clean and clear, as is the dialogue, from the solid lows to the beautiful highs.
The extra content is a large and diverse assortment. Although it does not have a commentary track, it does include "Off the Record," a nineteen minute behind the scenes featurette (with plenty of interviews with cast and crew), "Photo Pitch," an eight minute featurette that recreates director Curtis Hanson's original pitch for L.A. Confidential, and a one minute promo for the soundtrack. Furthermore, you get "the L.A. of L.A. Confidential," an interactive tour of many of the locations used in the movie (similar to the tour of New York in You've Got Mail), as well as the theatrical trailer (at about 1.85:1) and three television spots (full frame), all of excellent quality. Rounding out the collection are the usual cast & crew bio/filmographies, and several sections of background material on the people, places, and events of the L.A. Confidential era. The menus are movie themed, with sound on the main menu, and full motion video in the scene selection area.
Something bad about the disc. Hmm, er, umm...Uh, it doesn't have a commentary track? It comes in a snapper case?
You simply must own this disc. With a film this stunning, a transfer this gorgeous, and a wealth of extras, all for a mere pittance ($25), it belongs in every DVD owner's collection. It is the true Best Picture of 1997.
This movie and disc set the world record for the Fastest Acquittal Ever.
Review content copyright © 1999 Nicholas Sylvain; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 138 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Three Behind the Scenes Documentaries
* Music-Only Track in 5.1
* Production Notes
* Theatrical Trailers
* Three TV Spots