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LA Weekly from Los Angeles, California • 23

LA Weeklyi
Los Angeles, California
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mnmmnm 0 1 I 0 BY ELLA TAYLOR murder investigation opens up into a cesspool swimming with vintage Ellroy rogues among them crooked District Attorney Eliot l.oew (Ron Rifkin) and porn merchant Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn), who runs a pricey ring of call girls transformed by plastic surgery into movie-star look-alikes all three cops suffer the shattering of their most cherished beliefs about who is friend and who is foe, and what counts as good behavior. A genre revived Is a genre contaminated or pepped, depending on what you think of Tarantino by self-consciousness. These days one can hardly watch the gloomy existentialism of the beautiful Out of the Fast with a straight face, but the 1947 noir classic at least had the courage of its sad-sack convictions. Todays film noir giggles more than it sighs, anxious to disclaim the genres broody despair while still infatuated with its visual style and iconoclastic' posture. What ails current film noir is what ails us: the triumph of irony over belief, the deep suspicion that social institutions are irretrievably pocked with ambition and greed, and, worse, the perception that none of it matters.

Hanson has bent the genre, and good for him. From the word go, L.A. Confidential comes dressed in the sumptuous chocolate browns of warm noir. (Its gorgeously shot by Dante Spinotti, cinematographer to Michael Mann.) And though the movie is primed with enthusiastically bloody set pieces that vie with the best of Tarantino, its iolence disturbs more because it feels authentic, dangerous. Theres not a single shot in the movie that smacks of the adolescent snigger behind the ear-chopping scene in Reservoir Dogs.

L.A. Confidential is noir the way Chinatown is noir: hot, funny in the right places, sorrowful, and so caught up in its characters that they soon cease, as no Tarantino character can ever cease, to be generic. Fhe casting is impish and inspired. Watching Guy Pearces tautly wired, minimalist performance as F.xley, )ou would never guess that the young Australian was last seen as a particularly flamboyant drag queen in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Or that the goofy, off-center mug of James Cromwell, who plays the seasoned police chief and cops mentor, Dudley Smith, also belonged to Farmer Hoggett in Babe.

Spacey cooks along with his usual deceptive, underplayed ease as Jack, hile Russell Crowe, ho has played both sweet (the gay son in The Sum of Us) and cruel (the skinhead in Romper Stomper) effortlessly rolls the two together as the loose-cannon Bud, a man at once vicious and ardent. Hansons best and brightest move, though, was casting Kim Basinger as Lynn Bracken, a classy hooker who needs no more than a blond rinse to become a dead ringer for Veronica Lake. For, quite apart from her beauty (shes a mite too skinny in the movie for her voluptuous frame), Basinger has a range and depth that until now have largely gone untapped, unless you count her very funny turn in the otherwise snoreful Ready To Wear. (Hanson is warming to women: After The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, a dispiritinglv capable piece of poison about a crazed nanny showing a nice soccer mom that hell is other women, the director handed Meryl Streep her meatiest role in years as the white-water-rafting mother in The River Wild.) Basinger brings such languorous sexiness and haunting sadness to her role that it seems as if not only have White and Exley fallen in love, but so has Hanson himself. When Lynn makes her choice, she becomes the carrier of the bruised creature that passes for goodness in the movie, and in turn inspires a heroism of sorts in the others.

In its purest form, film noir is deeply cynical. Scratch a true cynic and you find a disappointed romantic, a little boy (noir is intractably a male romance) who has convinced himself that because everything is not wonderful, everything must be dreadful. If Los Angeles is not clean, it must be filthy to its core. Ellroy is more complicated: Fascinated though he is by absolute corruption and the way self-interest eats into nobler motives, in the end hes no cynic. I see Bud, Lynn tells a rueful Exley, who to all appearances has won the day.

Because he doesn't know how to disguise who he is. At heart Ellroy is no noir purist. Hes a softie in wolfs clothing, and so is Curtis Hanson. In L.A. Confidential, what wins the day is soiled knightliness, and romance that never disappoints.

EJ Cl CD rH i-4 .4. Confidential opens briskly with newsreel hmt.igc of a shins Angeles bvping its postwar lom of Hollywood glitz anil Iteewav lonstnulion. I hen the mmic tuts to teal festeting swamp of ot rupt tops dallying with fteshly minted mobsters and fledgling tabloids. Of com sc, the teal I a is Angeles wete watt hing is no mote (and no less) teal than the reel lais Angeles. For the latter offers the deluded grandeur of a town fluffing its feathers as it prepates to nudge New Yotk from its perch as top ity, while the former tehashes a fantasy we know by heart the fever clieam of American film noir, with its die ks and dames and its grandiose lament for the de ath of true lose, tnotal courage and, while wete at it, the whole of civic ultuie.

I he stors' of a police depattment hobbled by feeping tot ftom ssithin and without, Confidential teases brash r0s optimism with glum 30s cynic ism and tars Ixttb with the brush of the knosv-mg If this were all. the mosie would add up to nothing mote than a daj-per saiiant on the slick film noir testsals that base stt earned across the transom for the better pat of a decade, and which audiences wears of wotld wearv aie beginning to snub. Confidential is mote, a mas-tei fully smart and soulful fihn that bows low before genie even as it betravs it. Fortified with the yearning of Out of the Past, the delight in graft of Chinatown, the hell heh glee of The Long Coodbye and The Cnjteis plus a heat tfelt integrity all its own, the film is a crisply brutal paltrier spiked with black comedy and swoons lomanc e. It helps, of course, that director Curtis Hanson is winking tom a James F.llroy best-seller, though laird knows, bringing his crowded 1990 pulp novel to heel is a feat all by itself.

F.llroy is our reigning poet of hard-boiled, hut his clipped pellets of prose, which wink so well on the page, would bring the movie perilously close to Dragnet, a show it hilariously lampoons. Hanson and hot young scieenwriter Brian Helgeland have fleshed F.llroy out without missing a lieat of the writers jaundiced wit and febrile pacing. (For those of us who tire easily of the three-word sentence, theyve even added some verbs and subordinate clauses.) Artful in method and faithful in spirit, Hanson has trimmed Ellroys multiplotted behemoth clown to its emotional heart the reluctant alliance that grows among three radically incompatible cops roped together when they became embroiled in an investigation of the Nile Owl Massacre, a barroom multiple murder obscurely linked to a Christmas Eve orgy of precinct brutality against some Mexican suspects. Bud White (Russell Crowe) is a slightly dim bulb who breezily dispenses with house rules in his obsessive quest to punish wife beaters, hut would rather die than snitch on a partner who was involved in the illicit police action. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is a sharp dresser who, when hes not busy staging celebrity vice busts for a tabloid publisher (Danny DeVito, suitably slimy), serves as technical adviser to a certain well-known television show that glorifies the LAP I).

Though he can no longer remember why he joined the force, Jack, too, is no snitch. Which is just one of the reasons hy both men hate Ed F.xley (Guy Pearce), a walking IS HANSON SPACEYIRUSSElCCROW -iiisr QnxmiTinrnLri-imfliCDI- KEVIN cnanwASUrnGn Mention a stickup anti we instinctively think of f-oc lock-shadowed men planning a heist in some smoky room, grimly Isent oser a map while a leggy slattern yawns cm a background couch. Noir made visible to Americans the bridge Ixtween psychology and economics, between men who merely pray lor money and those who rob banks. Put another way, noir is Freud and Marx by other means. For a while now, a subtle backlash against all things noirish has been running through the critical press, along with a general disparaging of the genre.

This is a natural response to the avalanche of literary and film revivalism that buried a pait of pop culture in the time letwcen Ballantine Books reprinting of Raymond Chandler in the mid-70s and Black Lizard Press appropriation of his oeuvre in the early '90s. 'Today, any Starring UtfEARCtfSAMES'CROMWEl Joe Fridav parody whos trying to top his dead policeman father and for whom snitching lies somewhere between dutv and career move. As the ur SEPTEMBER 19 -25, 1997 LA WEEKLY 23.

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