If you had to plant corroborating evidence on a suspect you knew to be guilty, would you do it?
If there is one thing that you must do when you watch "L.A. Confidential", the cinematic adaptation of James Ellroy's Fifties noirish crime saga, it is this: YOU MUST PAY ATTENTION. A momentary lapse in your focus, or a brief hiatus to the restroom at an inopportune moment may jeopardize your appreciation (not to mention comprehension) of the densely-packed, intricately-laid out, and serpentine plot convolutions of this film, which won the Media Award at the 1997 Toronto International Film Festival.
It is the Fifties in the City of the Angels, and the Los Angeles Police Department has an image problem. The cops are cynically viewed by the public as corrupt, brutal, and no better than the criminals that they pursue. Despite the efforts of the top brass to restore faith in the once venerable institution, an incident in the holding cells of the precinct station on a Christmas Eve catches the attention of the popular press and ignites the ire of the public: some Mexican-American suspects are beaten by several inebriated officers in a blood-splattered maelstrom. This event draws three officers of discordant backgrounds and convictions together.
Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is a Boy Scout. He is more of a political maneuverer, preferring to use words and policies to effect change, as opposed to brute force. He wants to live up to his father's reputation of being a model officer, but without resorting to the usual and customary manner of the 'old school' L.A.P.D.-- beatings to extract confessions, planted evidence, and wanton police shootings. The beating in the police station, which occurs while he is on duty as shift commander for the first time, spurs him to testify against his fellow officers, making him persona non grata around the station house. However, his determination to reveal the truth also curries favor with the top brass, who promote him to a detective.
Bud White (Russell Crowe), on the other hand, is a throwback to a bygone era. He will serve justice by any means necessary, even if it means beating it out of a suspect. He has a particular disdain for women-beaters, and he makes it a point to ensure that they receive their just desserts. Involved as an active participant of the Christmas Eve incident, he watches his partner Dick Stensland (Graham Beckel), forced into early retirement for starting the beatings. Not surprisingly, White has an ax to grind with Exley.
Finally, the last officer in this triumvirate is Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), the flamboyant vice cop who not only serves as technical advisor to the hit television show "Badge of Honor", but also busts celebrities acting on tips from Sid Hudgeons (Danny Devito), the editor of a trashy tabloid called Hush-Hush. The arrangement nets Hudgeons exclusive stories to increase the circulation of his rag, and in return, Vincennes lines his pockets with greenbacks. He is forced to provide testimony against the officers involved in the beatings in order to retain his technical advisor status on the television show, though he is temporarily transferred to Homicide as punishment.
Not long after his forced retirement, Stensland is gunned down in the Nite Owl Coffee Shop, along with several other patrons and staff. Quickly, the slaughter is dubbed the 'Nite Owl Massacre', and the L.A.P.D. initiate a full-scale investigation to seek a swift resolution. After four suspects are arrested, the case seems open-and-shut: the suspects were found in possession of a vehicle spotted near the scene of the crime and the recovered shotguns found in the vehicle corroborate the ballistics evidence. Or is there more? As the case is pieced together, Exley, White, and Vincennes, each pursuing their own respective cases and interests, find their distinct paths intersect and their attention diverted towards an extensive gangland conspiracy operating in the shadows with impunity. Among the colorful characters that they come across include a sultry Veronica Lake-lookalike hooker Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), a millionaire pimp (David Strathairn) who runs an escort service that offers women that look like movie stars, an oily District Attorney (Ron Rifkin), and a manipulative Chief of Police (James Cromwell).
A hooker cut to look like Lana Turner is still a hooker... she only looks like Lana Turner.
Um... that IS Lana Turner.
At times during LC, you may feel lost and overwhelmed by the machinations of the plot. At other times, you may be bored by the seemingly useless exposition. But as the final act unfolds, the pieces fall together and the disparate storylines converge into a very satisfying whole, with several startling revelations along the way. The script is quite an achievement for screenwriter Brian Helgeland (he was also responsible for the not-so-spectacular "Assassins" and "Conspiracy Theory") and director Curtis Hanson (who helmed "Bad Influence" and "The River Wild"), who managed to condense Ellroy's novel into a more palatable form. I wouldn't call "L.A. Confidential" the best film of the year, but it certainly would rank among the best. It is a film that captures the look and feel of the film noir era, delving into not only the rotten core of a great American city, but also those of the flawed characters that inhabit it.