09 August, 2009

Movie Review: LA Confidential (1997)

I watched LA Confidential the other night, but I'll keep this review short because even though it ranks #471 on TSPDT?, I find the film largely unimportant and as dismissible as I perceived it ten years ago.

A plot-heavy neo-noir set within the innerworkings of the police department of 1950s Hollywood, director Curtis Hanson's 1997 film follows the hunt for a young, clean-cut, unpopular lieutenant detective (Guy Pearce) to uncover the true motive and killer(s) behind a shooting spree at an all-night diner. In his quest for real justice, the by-the-rules detective involves a rouge bully cop (Russell Crowe), a schmoozy cop-for-hire of a popular television show (Kevin Spacey), a corrupt police chief willing to go above the law in order to protect it (James Cromwell), a glamorous prostitute who looks exactly like a famous Hollywood starlet (Kim Basinger), a suave millionaire with criminal and legit dealings (David Strathairn), and a seedy tabloid muckraker and profiteer (Danny DeVito).

Of this all-star cast, only Strathairn and Bassinger come across as halfway believable in a film that's altogether too shiny to be any sort of reality. Pearce, Spacey, and Crowe never seem like people who actually spend their days carrying badges and guns, wearing uniforms, and doing police work. They exist only within the boundaries of the screen, manifesting straightforward psychological make-ups: Pearce's character watched his father be killed by a man who got away, so now he's eternally following the true, virtuous principles of justice and legality, trying to capture all those who think they can get away with it; Spacey's character can be bought and sold for the right price and is more attracted to glamour and money than any ideals, but he still maintains some shred of decency; Crowe's character helplessly watched his father beat his mother to death, so now nothing can stand in the way between his brute force and men who think they can abuse women. Every character has a motivational, psychoanalytical homunculus living inside of him, clearly dictating every action he performs so that his symbolism can be conveyed to the audience in as few quiet scenes of lucid introspective narration as possible. And except for one deviant moment where Crowe's Woman Protector actually slaps the woman he loves, the characters never get deeper than that.

Case in point: James Cromwell's police chief is a blatant ripoff of Orson Welles's Hank Quinlan from Touch of Evil. They are both men willing to break the law in order to uphold it. Quinlan, though, was a mess of realistic contradictions. He did terrible things but also noble things. He was disgusting but courageous. His track record for serving justice was incredible, even though he was a criminal. Quinlan had only a "touch of evil;" Cromwell's character is nothing but, and the results are not nearly as thought-provoking.

LA Confidential has a decent, somewhat intriguing plot full of relatively predictable revelations and twists. The set design is nice, and the soundtrack is enjoyable. There isn't much deeper to the film than a bunch of shiny surface, though, and every theme it tries to convey--the relativism of ethics, the dangers of fame and money, sons living in the shadows of their fathers--has been accomplished with much greater success and mastery in other films. LA Confidential is an ensemble film in which the sum is mediocre and each of the parts adds up to almost nothing, and I'm not sure why it has received all the attention it has from critics, fans, and the Academy.

LA Confidential
d: Curtis Hanson w: Brian Helgeland, Curtis Hanson
(Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Kim Basinger, James Cromwell)
6/10
TSPDT? #471

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