'L.A. Confidential' is the movie that taught me to never underestimate a filmmaker based only on his previous output. Given the right material to work from and enough passion, even an undistinguished journeyman director can be capable of turning out a masterpiece. For most of his career, Curtis Hanson was, let's face it, a hack. He'd worked since the early '80s as a hired-gun on profitable but unmemorable pictures like the early Tom Cruise sex comedy 'Losin' It' and the Rob Lowe comeback vehicle 'Bad Influence'. His biggest successes were the B-movie thrillers 'The Hand That Rocks the Cradle' and 'The River Wild'. 'Cradle' was an especially big (and unlikely) hit that gave Hanson enough cachet in Hollywood to spend a few years developing his dream project while nobody paid much attention. His labor of love took the form of a relatively low-budget period piece mystery with a couple of mostly-unknown actors from Australia in the leads. When released in 1997, it created a sensation.
Based on James Ellroy's acclaimed crime novel, 'L.A. Confidential' is the story of three '50s-era police detectives of very different backgrounds and dispositions. Bud White is the muscle, a hot-tempered brute inclined to rush into action first and think about the consequences later. Jack Vincennes is the showboat with Hollywood connections who understands how things really work in the city and isn't above taking a kickback here and there. Ed Exley is the straight-laced and ambitious idealist despised within the department for snitching on his fellow cops. Respectively, they are the id, ego, and super-ego of the Los Angeles Police Department. The three men have little in common and don't much care for one another. Their paths will intersect after a brutal massacre at the Nite Owl Café claims several victims, including a former cop they'd all worked with. Some black teens are railroaded to justice, the outcome of which doesn't quite sit right with any of the protagonists. As they dig deeper behind the scenes of the convenient story constructed around this event, they start to dredge up all manner of secrets involving drugs, prostitution, blackmail, and murder.
Through these three men, 'L.A. Confidential' is also the story of Los Angeles itself. Ellroy's novel presents the city as a living, breathing, writhing mass of contradictions -- a glitzy and glamorous façade masking a seedy underbelly of crime and corruption. The book is dense and sprawling, a genuine epic of America's darker tendencies. Hanson's film greatly streamlines the narrative, excising numerous subplots to hone in with precision focus on the essential elements of the story. The result is a perfect sort of adaptation, one true to the spirit and intentions of its source material but unafraid to make major changes to the sacred text in order to allow the film to develop and flourish as its own distinct piece of art.
The script (by Hanson and co-screenwriter Brian Helgeland) is brilliantly structured with what seems at first to be a complete beginning, middle, and end all before the half-way mark, at which point the film spins off on a major plot shift and builds an even more compelling three-act arc. There's not a wasted moment or line of dialogue in the whole thing. At almost 2 1/2 hours in length, the picture moves like lightning. Hanson's crackerjack direction adeptly balances weightier dramatic moments, rich character development, and thrilling action. The movie is at once a period piece unburdened by nostalgia, a police procedural that bypasses formula conventions, and a film noir without the usual stylistic clichés associated with the genre.
At the time, the film's supporting cast was more famous than its leads. Although he's a major leading man and Oscar winner now, back in 1997 Russell Crowe was a little-known Australian actor whose only significant American credit of note was playing the villain in the Denzel Washington sci-fi bomb 'Virtuosity'. 'L.A. Confidential' proved instantly and irrefutably that Crowe was a star. Guy Pearce had been known only as one of the drag queens in 'The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert' and wouldn't go on to his breakout role in 'Memento' for another few years. More recognizable were Kevin Spacey, still fairly fresh off his Oscar win for 'The Usual Suspects', and Kim Basinger. Backing them up are James Cromwell, David Strathairn, and Danny DeVito, among others. The performances are all sterling.
'L.A. Confidential' proved to be a solid box office hit and was greeting with rapturous critical praise. It was, without question, the best movie released in 1997. Unfortunately, come awards season it was mostly capsized in the wake of 'Titanic', garnering only a couple of token Oscars for the screenplay and for Basinger as Supporting Actress. Hanson would go on to make one more truly great movie, the under-appreciated 'Wonder Boys', and a few well-intentioned duds. Even if the director never does anything worthwhile again, 'L.A. Confidential' will endure as a classic, and that's a greater career legacy than most filmmakers will ever achieve.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'L.A. Confidential' comes to Blu-ray from Warner Home Video in a 2-disc set. Disc 1 contains the movie and all video supplements. Like most Warner releases, the disc prompts playback of the feature without any trailers or even a main setup menu. Disc 2 is the soundtrack CD sampler.
I have to admit that this was a tough disc to evaluate. For some reason, the opening Warner Bros. logo at the start of the feature is extremely blurry, actually out of focus. The movie proper opens with some heavily grainy and soft stock footage for effect. The combination of these two things right at the beginning put me in the wrong frame of mind. They set me up to expect the worst, and forced me into nit-picker mode where any perceived flaw seemed like a disaster. Honestly, it took me quite a while to get over that and begin to appreciate the disc's better qualities.
Dante Spinotti's photography is a little hazy by design, featuring many smoggy city views and smoke-filled interiors. At first, the Blu-ray's 1080p/VC-1 transfer (presented in the original 2.40:1 theatrical aspect ratio) seemed awfully soft. However, over time I realized how much detail was on display in things like the fabric weave of clothing, facial features, and small newspaper print. The image is mildly grainy, but appropriately so. The disc exhibits no obvious DNR artifacts.
Dark scenes have excellent shadow detail, but the contrast range as a whole is a little flat. Neither the bright scenes nor dark scenes have much dynamic "pop" or depth. With that said, the more I watched the movie, the more natural and film-like it felt. Some minor edge ringing creeps in on a few occasions. That's my only real complaint, and it's a small one. I started the disc with an immediate negative reaction, but it eventually won me over once I settled into it. If not perfect, I believe the Blu-ray to be a largely accurate and ultimately pleasing presentation for the movie.
The lossless Dolby TrueHD soundtrack was easier to admire right away. The movie's sound mix has nice musicality with sharp brass instruments in the score. Dialogue is always clear and intelligible. Gunshots crack with authority, and punches hit with a satisfying bass thump. There's plenty of auditory detail in subtler sounds, and the action scenes rev up to some thunderous power. Surround usage is generally reserved, until the climactic shoot-out that features aggressive rear-channel panning and discrete effects. All in all, it's nice work.
The Blu-ray carries over all of the bonus features from the comparable Two-Disc Special Edition DVD. A few of them first appeared on the original DVD released back in 1998.
'L.A. Confidential' is a flat-out masterpiece. The Blu-ray has a faithful transfer and a load of terrific supplements. It of course comes highly recommended.