It’s probably appropriate that the film adaptation of James Ellroy’s novel L.A. Confidential contains a fictional TV series that’s an obvious riff on Dragnet. This film seems like it wants to expose every dirty secret about the LAPD that Jack Webb ever whitewashed.
Taking place in the early 1950s, when the mythology of modern day Los Angeles was still being written, the movie follows three very different cops, each flawed but honorable in his own individual way. Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is the politically ambitious son of dead detective idolized by other cops. Bud White (Russell Crowe) is a hard-nosed detective with a particularly direct style of dealing with the bad guys. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is more concerned with the high profile that comes with the technical adviser on the aforementioned Dragnet clone entitled Badge of Honor. All three of them report to Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell), a truly old-school cop with an ice-cold Irish charm.
On Christmas night, as the LAPD prepares for its holiday party, some Mexicans are brought in for assaulting some cops. With tempers running high and liquor flowing, some of the Mexicans wind up on the wrong end of a savage beating based on a real event known as “Bloody Christmas.” The LAPD brass and the district attorney are looking for heads to roll, but the cops circle the wagons. Jack Vincennes refuses to testify until he is threatened with the loss of his technical advisor job. Ed Exley cooperates in exchange for a promotion. In the end, Bud White’s partner, Det. Stensland (Graham Beckel), is the fall guy and Exley’s name is mud to the rest of the LAPD.
And that’s just the set up. It also seems that, with the local mob boss in jail, someone has been putting a hit on his henchmen and stealing his heroin. That seems to be totally unrelated to the plot, at least until the bodies start piling up.
Six people are shotgunned to death in joint called the Night Owl Cafe, one of them being Bud White’s ex-partner, Stensland. Much to the dismay of virtually every one, Exley catches the case. Three black youths are fingered as suspects and arrested and Ed Exley begins to regain the respect of his colleagues when he ruthlessly and efficiently extracts a confession. After they escape and Exley almost single-handedly tracks them down and kills them in a violent shootout, he is suddenly not just back in the good graces of his fellow cops but a city-wide hero.
Before long, however, each one of our detectives, White, Vincennes and Exley, will start to doubt that everything is as it seems where the Night Owl case is concerned. They start to investigate the case, each on their own at first and then together, and the trail leads to a mobster’s stolen heroin and a call girl ring where the girls are given plastic surgery to resemble famous movie stars.
Somehow, writer/director Curtis Hanson and screenwriter Brian Helgeland managed to boil Ellroy’s byzantine plot down to a reasonable dimension and keep everything straight on the screen. The film is sleek, stylish and violent, evoking postwar Los Angeles is all its sunny, gritty and corrupt detail.
The performances, as the caliber of actors in the film would suggest, are universally superior. Kim Basinger as Lynn, the call girl ring’s “Veronica Lake,” surpasses all expectations. Despite what you might have heard, her Oscar was definitely not a consolation prize for losing all of the other awards to Titanic. The soundtrack is a rich mixture of orchestral score and period music making the isolated music score one of the best extras on the DVD.
In short, L.A. Confidential was the best film of 1997, one of the best films of the 1990s and the best film about Los Angeles since Chinatown.