I initially hesitated to do this review because there's not really much I can add. I mean, the movie came out in 1997 and all the film critics loved it then. I love the movie. So, really, what is this review going to add to them? Honestly, not much. Plus, this page is mostly devoted to science fiction and fantasy, which L.A. Confidential most certainly is not. However, it's my blog and I can blather on about a movie I love if I want to.
What is the appeal of L.A. Confidential? Well, it's a Neo-Noir movie which is masterfully written and acted. A note before we proceed, I personally hate the title of Neo-Noir because it needlessly overcomplicates things. L.A. Confidential is a Noir movie. It's even set in the proper time frame. It just happened to be written in a different time period than the original Film Noir pictures.
What is Noir? That actually deserves it's own article and I'll have to find time to do that someday. The short version is everyone is an a-------. Seriously, that's probably the best definition I can give for the Noir sensibility. The world is painted in varying shades of black with the best characters in the world being a lighter shade of gray than the purely evil people who fill the world. Good people may exist but they're completely powerless or painfully naive.
Los Angeles makes a surprisingly good setting for Noir films because it's more or less the polar opposite of New York in terms of visuals but possessed of an equally seamy underbelly. Hollywood, big business, and police corruption have always been features of L.A. so it stands to reason that there's plenty of stories which can be told about it.
The premise of L.A. Confidential is really too complicated to get into. It's a mystery which involves plastic surgery, mob hits, tabloids, prostitution, blackmail, and all the wonderful ick that makes Noir so wonderful. The actual plot isn't actually all that complicated but the stuff happening around the plot is absorbing to watch. The setting of L.A Confidential is a slice of life from the West Coast circa 1952 or so, exaggerated to wonderful effect.
The heart of the movie, of course, is it's characters. The two main cops aren't particularly detailed but archetypal. Bud White (Russel Crowe) is a wife-beater-beater who takes out his frustrations on every misogynist he can lay his hands on. Edmund Exley (Guy Pierce) is his smug rules-lawyering counterpart, who isn't so much an honest cop as a guy who believes he can get better results simply by being smarter than everyone else on the force. There's a third detective, Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), who just wants to be sort-of famous by being technical advisor on a police procedural while occasionally scoring headlines for a local tabloid.
There's not a bad performance in this movie. Everyone from Danny Devito's slimy reporter to James Cromwell's Irish-American Precinct Captain are note perfect representations of their role in the story. The movie eats, breathes, and bleeds Los Angeles sensibility. It's not historical Los Angeles but the City of Angeles that exists in our minds, just like the Maltese Falcon depicted the New York which existed in the 1930s and 1940s public's mind.
Just about the only flaw the movie has is it's sensibilities somewhat too perfectly reflect the attitudes of the time period. The only black characters in the film are criminals or relatives of them. The only homosexual character in the story is an off-screen presence whose exposure will result in him doing something unforgivable. We're enlightened enough as a society we can depict realistically the attitudes of the period without condoning them.
I point at this movie for anyone who wants to do a Noir piece. You don't have to imitate the setting but the seamless blend of action, corruption, and grotesques is the heart of the genre. One of my favorite scenes is where a grieving mother is unable to identify her daughter's body because of the later's extensive plastic surgery. It's such a bizarre premise that it says something about the kind of world they live in.
I recommend everyone check it out.