Check the back shelves of your video store for the moldering remains of films that want to be Chinatown. Robert Towne's Oscar-winning screenplay for that 1974 crime classic, starring Jack Nicholson as private eye Jake Gittes, used a 1930s water scandal to track corruption in the City of Angels and reflect the moral compromises of the Watergate era in which the film was made. Piss-poor imitators, including Mulholland Falls and The Two Jakes, a Chinatown sequel, were clobbered both critically and commercially. The message to all who would invite comparison is: Don't go there.
L.A. Confidential ignores that message and has a fine set of balls to do so. Its director, Curtis Hanson, specializes in down-market escapism, such as The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and The River Wild. His co-writer, Brian Helgeland, is also responsible for Conspiracy Theory, the fragmented Mel Gibson thriller that is currently dragging its ass at the box office. For the two Los Angeles police officers at the core of the plot, Hanson has cast Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, who happen to be native Australians and relative unknowns. The femme fatale is Kim Basinger, who hasn't made a movie in three years or been in hailing distance of a hit since the first Batman.
Against all odds, L.A. Confidential succeeds brilliantly, right down to Jerry Goldsmith's score, which evokes his haunting theme from Chinatown without being haunted by it. L.A. Confidential kicks off the fall film season on a high note by finding its own way into Hollywood's criminal past, circa 1953, and locating parallels to the racial bonfires ignited by the likes of O.J. Simpson, and L.A. cops Stacey Koon and Mark Fuhrman. Blazing with action, humor and eroticism, the film is long at 2:16, but it's consistently riveting. The screenplay distills James Ellroy's 1990 novel without losing its crackle and density. Though the film is rich in atmosphere — cinematographer Dante Spinotti lights Ruth Myers' costumes and Jeannine Oppewall's production design to optimum effect — the emphasis is on character and on quality acting.
Kevin Spacey deserves another Oscar to go with the one he earned for The Usual Suspects. As Jack Vincennes, a sergeant with a knack for arresting celebrities (he nailed Robert Mitchum in a pot bust) that has made him a celeb himself, Spacey radiates flashy wit and cunning. Jack is the adviser to a TV cop show, Badge of Honor, and not above taking tips on the sex crimes of the city's elite from Sid Hudgeons (Danny DeVito in fine, tawdry fettle), the editor of a tabloid called Hush-Hush. Spacey, who reveals hints of decency under Jack's droll cynicism, shows the thrill that Jack gets from his proximity to lurid Hollywood glamour. A gag involving Johnny Stompanato (Paolo Seganti), Lana Turner's gangster lover, is priceless.
Hollywood fixation also figures into a prostitution ring run by Pierce Patchett (the excellent David Strathairn), an elegant pimp who decks out his hookers to look like movie stars. Basinger's Lynn Bracken lets her blond hair hang down over one side of her face in the peekaboo style of '40s screen siren Veronica Lake. The customers love it.
So does Officer Bud White (Russell Crowe), a loose cannon who likes to beat up on men who beat up on women. His nemesis is Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), a college-boy officer and reformer who beds and brutalizes Lynn. Crowe, the skinhead in Romper Stomper, and Pearce, the drag artiste in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, are both sensational as they rip into star-making roles. The conflict between Bud and Ed heats up when each cop learns that the call-girl racket holds the key to the massacre at the Nite Owl Coffee Shop, which left six dead, including racist cop Dick Stensland (Graham Beckel).
The convoluted plot lines all intersect at the Nite Owl, and Hanson brings together Jack, Bud and Ed — three cops who share nothing in common — with diabolical skill. Sides are drawn from the get-go when Dick and some other rogue cops round up a few Mexicans on Christmas Eve and beat them senseless at the station house. Bud won't fink on his fellow cops to Capt. Dudley Smith (a wonderfully devious James Cromwell); Ed will — not out of concern for minorities but to earn a promotion. It's "Shotgun" Ed who leads the attack against the black suspects in the Nite Owl case, blowing them away despite the lack of evidence.
Moral rot infects the characters in L.A. Confidential, which may lose audiences looking for heroes. Spacey's celebrity crime stopper exhibits 11th-hour self-disgust at the gory mess that results when he sets up a boyish actor with a deviant district attorney. (Ron Rifkin). Basinger, who registers strongly, falters only in Lynn's cornball final speech to Ed about the blood on his conscience.
Scruples don't play in this urban jungle. L.A. Confidential deserves a place with the best crime films when it hangs tough in the style of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. The individual cop, represented by Bud, and the department, represented by Ed, are equally corruptible: the cop as vigilante, the department as fascist state. Ellroy, the self-proclaimed "demon dog of American fiction," isn't interested in those Pollyannas who want to bring order to the seductive danger of chaos. As a wise movie cop once said, "Forget it, Jake; it's Chinatown."