Los Angeles in the early ’50s — the world of the dazzling L.A. Confidential — is a well-lit place of darkness. “The sun shines bright,” we’re told at the beginning, and even the night is sliced open by spotlights and tabloid flashbulbs. This is the L.A. of James Ellroy’s “bad white men,” the brutes and killers driven by ambition and obsession. Are they cops or mobsters? What’s the difference? L.A. Confidential is part of Ellroy’s brilliant “L.A. Quartet,” an alternative gutter history of America mixing sensational fact and corrosive fiction. Except for a couple of easily overlooked movie-ish speeches and alterations, the new film adaptation does full justice to the moral complexity and compulsive sin of Ellroy’s universe. It may just be the movie of the year.
The closest thing to a hero is Bud White (Russell Crowe), a dim and brutal cop who likes to kick the crap out of wife-beaters. Bud’s willingness to use excessive force has made him both admired and feared in his department. Bud’s opposite number is Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), a shrewd and virtuous young cop who believes in integrity and non-violence. Ed also believes in advancement, and isn’t above snitching on fellow cops to nab a Detective Lieutenant spot. Somewhere in the middle is Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), a cop who acts as technical advisor to the popular cop show Badge of Honor and has a standing deal with tabloid vulture Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito) to get himself ink and glory.
Ellroy’s cops are haunted by erotic and psychological demons that drive them far more than any ideal of justice. The film, directed by Curtis Hanson (The River Wild) from a script he wrote with Brian Helgeland (Conspiracy Theory), distills Ellroy’s epic into a compact drama that sketches in the motives that Ellroy plumbed in depth. Gone, for example, are Jack’s addiction to violent porn and Ed’s romance with a rape victim, whose adulation of the brutal Bud compels Ed to prove his manhood and earn the nickname “Shotgun Ed.”
What’s left of Ellroy’s story is still so dense that I barely have room to touch on it. A massacre at the Nite Owl Diner leaves six people dead, among them a dirty cop. Ed takes the case, and Jack and Bud flit around the criminal margins of L.A., sniffing after vague scents of corruption. A ritzy call-girl ring of movie-star lookalikes (including Kim Basinger as a Veronica Lake hooker) is involved, as well as Mickey Cohen and heroin and pornography and male hustlers. Yet all of this is easy to follow; the filmmakers have boiled the story down to its bare, punchy essentials. Several moments are stunningly violent, especially the death of a major character (significantly changed from the book).
I regret a few Hollywood touches — one of which is Ellroy’s. Ed’s speech about the death of his cop father is meant to set up a later revelation, but it rings false anyway. The ending, which gives one of the men a happily-ever-after exit with Kim Basinger, is right from the novel; it smacked of wishful thinking there, too. But overall this is a great achievement. Masterfully acted across the board (Australian actors Crowe and Pearce deserve the stardom they’re about to get), L.A. Confidential is dizzying and powerful. James Ellroy is justifiably proud of it, and Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland should be, too.