Dir. Curtis Hanson
Screenplay: Brian Helgeland
Released: 1997, Warner Bros
Running Time:138 mins
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Danny DeVito, Kim Basinger, James Cromwell
Based on a pulp fiction crime novel from the master of the genre, James Ellroy, Barry Norman said it was the film of the year. It had Danny DeVito, Kevin Spacey, Kim Basinger, and the farmer from Babe.
It begins with a delicious opening. An intro monologue from the invitingly mischievous voice of Dany DeVito in character as Sid Hutchens, the sleazy muckraker whose pulpy vice-riddle gossip rag is the eponymous basis of our movie.
The intro exposes the murky world of Jewish syndicate-bigshot Mickey Cohen and the battle to save The City of Angels from the king of vice . It is of a time when the TV gave home audiences characters they felt safe with. It is the era of hero-cops on our screen, moral, tough, and right.
It is selling-short to say it is set against the backdrop of Los Angeles.when in fact L.A is one of the characters. It pays little homage to the town yet does not go dank and sleazy like Boyz in the Hood or American History X. It uses more imagination. it is no tourism advert but it doesn't allow the audience a clue to the outcome based on geographical lamentation or depressing monologues citing civic erosion as a societal factor.
The story involves three main characters. All are policemen, all have demons and all are flawed., Bud White, played by Russell Crowe, Sgt. Jack Vincennes, a stylish and well-respected vet played by Kevin Spacey and Ed Exley, played by Guy Pearce. Between them, they share one bad guy's characteristics, each with a third of a total villain. The other two-thirds though. Who can guess?
Russell Crowe's character is brutish, stern, and if you decide to get physical with a female you had best watch out. His fierce loyalty, dedication to the job, and exciting punishment of wrongdoers, as well as his innocent, yet unstoppable thought-process makes him an audience-grabber.
The same can be said for Kevin Spacey's Jack Vincennes, the likeability at least. He is smart as a whip, and equally as "flexible". He is in a trade-off deal with the aforementioned muckraker played by Danny DeVito, which benefits his pocket nicely.
Pearce's Exley is the lead and is stoic, wise, and sure of his path. Although originally detested for a snitch, his impeccable detective skill, courage-under-fire, and thief-taking ability help him shake off at least part of the turncoat label he has stitched into his uniform.
A case of drunken hi-jinx turns nasty and with a city out for answers, politics takes a place. Exley thrives and White falls, things progress with a brutal massacre as well as a suitcase full of heroin and a rising pile of dead gangsters. Fighting to stay above ground and within the law, the three get to climb and clamber in and around the intrigue. Bloodthirsty hatred, lies, and fear throw shadows at the California Sun. Controlling with unmistakable authority and leading the precinct, the lean and likeable James Cromwell is as worthy as ever as an old-school police captain, Dudley Smith.
Friendships are burned and hatred is forgotten. The prejudices and corruption of 1950's America are clear and present. Stacked full of traditional fifties standards, but it never feels cliched.
Kevin Spacey is sublime. He delivers lines with as much deadpan humour, threatening menace, and masked innuendo as he ever did in Se7en or The Usual Suspects. He masters the art of saying nothing to answer a question with absolute zeal and an astonishing presence that makes you start to think he is taller than he is.
There is humour, and even comedy. The Lana Turner lookalike brings a memorable moment for us, and as always, it all just fits.
The machine goes full circle. There is further charged feeling with the addition of a sultry bombshell, Lynne Bracken, played all the way to her acceptance speech at the Oscars, by the undeniable glamour-queen of the late eighties and early nineties, Kim Basinger. The chemistry between her and her chosen beau, as well as the pitter-patter of Hanson & Helgeland's Oscar-winning script that dances and splashes like perfect raindrops, is just meant to be enjoyed. The game is up and the race is on and in the final act, we have to see who is right, and who is going to come out on top, if at all. Curtis Hanson makes sure we get a full treatment here. The script is unstoppable, the scenery embossed by Dante Spinotti's top-drawer cinematography is atmospherically indeterminable, we have been given a super-evocative soundtrack with Jerry Goldsmith's score and some obvious show tunes that have been used in a hundred other movies but here used a hundred times better.
It will be sacrilege and I will have my credentials questioned, but it beats Goodfellas, it beats Chinatown, and for my money, it is by far and away the best film of the 1990s