James Ellroy's sprawling, epic 1990 novel, L.A. Confidential, envisions the Los Angeles Police Department of the 1950s as a logical extension of Hollywood's obsession with illusion: A glossy and appealing facade, created for the benefit of the general public, exists to cover up a cesspool of illicit activities, rampant corruption and matter-of-fact double-dealing.
The cops who work in this environment play by a different set of rules than those in the law books, but even they don't fully realize the inner workings of the dirty machine. In Ellroy's book, and in this expert adaptation written by Brian Helgeland and director Curtis Hanson, three immensely flawed and professionally compromised LAPD officers are brought together to uncover the truth behind the brutal shotgun murders at a seedy all-night diner called the Nite Owl.
Within the department, Wendell "Bud" White (Russell Crowe) is seen as a dim-bulb enforcer who can coerce confessions with his fists when interrogations stall. Bud possesses a particular hatred for men who abuse women and keeps careful track of paroled wife-beaters, often making house calls to dispense his own particular brand of rehabilitation.
"Trashcan" Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) uses his position with Narcotics to set up high-profile celebrity arrests, which are documented by Hush-Hush, a Hollywood scandal sheet whose "sintillating" prose comes courtesy of sleazemonger Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito). These busts, along with Vincennes' role as a technical adviser to the television show, "Badge of Honor" (a twin for "Dragnet"), keep him in the limelight.
Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is an inflexible straight-shooter, a bookish war veteran who sees himself as the future of the LAPD, even telling the powerful and sinister Sgt. Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) that he wouldn't frame a suspect he knew to be guilty. But Ed's blind spot is his almost pathological ambition, and his climb to the top may end up leaving a few unfortunate victims along the way.
While not reaching the twisted heights of the superbly sinister Chinatown, L.A. Confidential is smart, complex and engrossing. Director Hanson creates a lean and powerful visual equivalent to Ellroy's tough-as-nails prose, even though he doesn't indulge the author's propensity for gore (which is more attuned to Seven than anything here).
Hanson also makes excellent use of Los Angeles' myriad neighborhoods, the various houses and buildings perfectly reflecting the characters' places in society.
As good as the actors are, the film's emotional center is a woman: Kim Basinger plays a cool and intelligent high-priced prostitute (made up to look like 1940s good-girl femme fatale Veronica Lake) with surprising acuity and poise.
"Some men get the world," she says in one of Ellroy's best lines. "Some men get ex-hookers and a trip to Arizona." In the fun-house mirror of L.A. Confidential, you wonder who gets the better deal.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.