Warner Bros. // 1997 // 138 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // October 17th, 2008
Everything is suspect...everyone is for sale...and nothing is what it seems.
Come to Los Angeles! The sun shines bright, the beaches are wide and inviting, and the orange groves stretch as far as the eye can see. There are jobs aplenty and land is cheap. Every working man can have his own house -- and inside every house: a happy, all-American family. You can have all this and, who knows, you could even be discovered, become a movie star. Or at least see one. Life is good in Los Angeles. It's paradise on Earth. That's what they tell you, anyway. -- Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito)
Set in the early 1950s, L.A. Confidential follows the dark adventures of three cops: Sergeant Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce, Memento), the straight-laced but politically astute son of a well-respected Inspector killed in the line of duty; Sergeant Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey, American Beauty), a suave but cynical cop who basks in the entertainment limelight as the technical adviser on a TV cop show called Badge of Honor; and Officer Bud White (Russell Crowe, Gladiator), a plainclothes cop more renowned for his muscle than his smarts.
All three cops are drawn independently into different aspects of the Nite Owl slayings, a multiple homicide in a diner in downtown Los Angeles. Following a lead on one of the victims, Bud White meets Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger, Batman), a prostitute and Veronica Lake look-a-like. Bracken works for Pierce Morehouse Pratchett (David Strathairn, Good Night, and Good Luck), a high-class pimp whose Fleur-De-Li call-girl service features girls surgically modified to look like famous actresses. Investigating an underground pornography business, Vincennes discovers additional ties between the Nite Owl murders and Pratchett. Meanwhile, Exley reaps the career benefits when his investigation pins the murder on a group of black youths. That doesn't end his quest for the truth, though, as his conscience is nagged by inconsistencies in the now closed case.
L.A. Confidential is a film that's greatness is difficult to quantify. If one of any number of its elements were even slightly askew, the movie might have been mediocre or even terrible. As luck or serendipity or fate or whatever would have it, the picture is a modern classic. One of its many strengths is that director Curtis Hanson (Wonder Boys) is a true Los Angeleno at heart just like author James Ellroy, who wrote the novel upon which the film is based. As a result, Hanson's movie is no more an exercise in neo-noir style than Ellroy's novel is a pastiche of detective pulp novels. The third in a quartet of L.A.-based novels he wrote in the '80s, Ellroy's L.A. Confidential is a dense, complex, and voluminous work that has little in common with the sort of quickly written, cheaply published fiction a reader in the '50s might pick up at a dime store for a cheap thrill. It is a brutal, difficult novel with sharp turns of plot, fierce and cynical intelligence, and crackerjack prose.
Kicking off with a fictionalized account of the 1951 LAPD scandal known as "Bloody Christmas," in which a gang of officers beat nearly to death seven Latino men being held in police custody, Ellroy's novel is packed with details from L.A.'s history, a keen sense of its locations, a vivid explication of its soul. It tears into the glitzy Hollywood studio system at the center of the city's economy as well as its seedy, criminal underbelly by thrusting the reader into a place where both sides, light and dark, meet. There was no way Hanson and screenwriter Brian Helgeland (Mystic River) could capture all of the depth, detail, history, and entwined subplots of Ellroy's novel in the film adaptation (though it is plenty complex as movies go with three protagonists whose stories often overlap and finally merge). It doesn't matter. L.A. Confidential the movie is a far more streamlined affair than its literary precedent, but Hanson's love of Los Angeles ensured that he captured the often dark soul of the city just as Ellroy had. The movie isn't as vast and sprawling as the book, but it shares the same spirit. Hanson and cinematographer Dante Spinotti (Heat) eschewed the harsh chiaroscuro of classic noir in favor of presenting the city with a warm realism. The result is a period piece that reads as accurate but not all old fashioned or hokey. The movie's 1950s setting feels integral to the plot, rather than just an exercise in style.
Another of L.A. Confidential's strengths is its cast. Working with a paltry 15-million dollar budget, Hanson couldn't afford stars. He and casting agent Mali Finn had to settle for Kevin Spacey (at the time, a top-tier character actor who hadn't yet made the leap to movie star) and a pair of nobodies from New Zealand and Australia, respectively: Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce. Needless to say, things worked out pretty well for Hanson. What the trio of actors brought to their roles was a fine balance of darkness and likeability. Spacey is perfect as Vincennes -- smooth, handsome, somewhat sleazy, definitely callow, but charming enough that we like him (and pity him) despite his faults. Crowe's intensity makes Bud White's intimidation tactics entirely believable, but it's the self-doubt, insecurity, and emotional vulnerability he delivers that makes the performance truly memorable. Guy Pearce's performance is perhaps the most astounding of all. He somehow makes us both admire and loathe Ed Exley as an ambitious and viciously intelligent political animal, a guy whose by-the-book idealism in a morally shady world reduces him to a two-faced opportunist. The cast is rounded out by Danny DeVito in a sizable comic role as a sleazy tabloid writer; David Strathairn as a suave but vacant pimp; James Cromwell as a tough but avuncular police captain; and, of course, Kim Basinger in her Oscar-winning turn as Lynn Bracket, a Veronica Lake look-a-like hooker with a heart of gold. From top to bottom, it's an amazing cast. They add texture and detail to Hanson's already supple adaptation of Ellroy's fine novel.
L.A. Confidential looks superb on Blu-ray. The 1080p transfer offers strong detail, particularly in close-ups and other foreground objects. Colors are accurate, stable, and warm, if subdued -- I wouldn't describe the look as "vivid," but I doubt that was Spinotti's intent. Digital noise reduction is kept to a minimum; grain levels are attractive and appropriate. As expected, depth and detail are well beyond the capacity of standard DVD presentations. As with most Warner Brothers catalog releases, audio is presented in a strong TrueHD mix limited only by the age of the source and style of the film. A half dozen dubs are provided, most of them in standard Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mixes. A music-only track allows you to listen to Jerry Goldsmith's (The Omen) score while watching the movie sans dialogue and effects. There are also enough subtitle options to appease just about everyone in Europe, South America, and China.
Supplements are bountiful. First up is a cobbled-together audio commentary by James Ellroy, Dante Spinotti, Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, Guy Pearce, James Cromwell, David Strathairn, Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito, critic and film historian Andrew Sarris, producers Arnon Milchan and Michael Nathanson, costume designer Ruth Myers, screenwriter Brian Helgeland, production designer Jeannine Oppewall, and editor Peter Honess. The most notable thing about the track is Hanson's absence. Otherwise, it's a crowded affair that, despite being informative, never finds the right mix between warm reminiscence and cold, hard facts. Two separate tracks -- one featuring Ellroy and Sarris, the other the cast -- would have offered a better balance of education and entertainment.
A series of meaty featurettes (each running anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes) provides an overview of the film's genesis and production, a look at Spinotti's cinematography, background on the casting of the movie, and details of how Hanson and Helgeland adapted the book for the screen. A vintage electronic press kit, made up of cast interviews, is archived on the disc, as is a video of Hanson reliving the pitch he made to producer Arnon Milchin. You can also watch the pilot episode of the abysmal 2003 L.A. Confidential television show starring Keifer Sutherland as Jack Vincennes -- that is, if you're a glutton for punishment. The disc also contains an interactive map tour of 1950s Los Angeles as well as a collection of trailers.
Simply put, L.A. Confidential is one of the best crime films ever made, and one of the most memorable movies of the '90s. Its strong video and audio presentation, as well as a boatload of extras, make owning this Blu-ray edition a no-brainer for the movie's many fans.
Review content copyright © 2008 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p Widescreen)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Greek)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Italian)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 138 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Audio Commentary
* Whatever You Desire: Making L.A. Confidential
* Sunlight and Shadow: The Visual Style of L.A. Confidential
* A True Ensemble: The Cast of L.A. Confidential
* L.A. Confidential: From Book to Screen
* L.A. Confidential TV Pilot
* Off the Record: Vintage Cast/Creator Interviews
* Director Curtis Hanson's Photo Pitch
* The L.A. of L.A. Confidential Interactive Map Tour
* Music-Only Track
* Trailer Gallery