" Oh come come now. Just because you sold your soul to the devil, that needn’t make you a teetotaler. "
— Edward Arnold, The Devil and Daniel Webster

MRQE Top Critic

The Great Train Robbery

(review...)

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Movie Habit congratulates L.A. Confidential, the first new release to receive a four-star rating from this site. It is an excellent movie. It is incredibly well made, and will no doubt play a role into the Academy Awards next spring.

The movie opens with an optimistic industrial film hyping Los Angeles of the mid-1950s. The film-in-a-film is narrated by a man named Sid (Danny DeVito) who loves L.A. — the glitter and the grime. Sid has all the inside dirt because he writes a celebrity crime tabloid and has lots of connections on the police force.

There’s Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) who, when he’s not arresting celebrity criminals for Sid’s camera, is a consultant for Badge of Honor, the hottest cop show on TV.

There’s Bud White (Russell Crowe), whose achilles heel is a damsel in distress and whose tragic flaw is a hot temper.

There’s Dudley Smith (James Cromwell), who, over the years, has found a way to keep L.A. free from big-time crime — when he finds it necessary for Bud or another officer to use excessive force, he officially looks the other way — but only when his senses tell him the public will approve.

And there’s the new guy, Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), an honorable, young, upwardly-mobile cop who would never allow police violence, even on the nastiest, vilest criminals.

These four characters are remarkably well developed. Each is a whole person; acted more stylistically than realistically, but whole, nonetheless. Even more surprising is that each character has the capacity to grow. Ed has to confront what Dudley takes for granted: that idealism can be very limiting to a cop. Vincennes lets a bit of remorse through his shellacked exterior, and once inside, it widens the hole.

Each character has his own motivations, his own reactions, and, to some extent, his own story line. But a single case, perhaps linked to another, is the focus of the movie. Several people are killed in a diner, and one of them is Stensland (Graham Beckel), Bud’s partner. A group of young men has kidnapped and raped a girl, and it appears that they have committed both crimes.

Each cop has his own way of going about the investigation, and each contributes something valuable to the investigation. Unfortunately, the crimes are particularly ugly and a faint lead points back toward the police, adding to the stress of the already conflict-ridden department.

The cops gather information, one piece at a time. Each piece adds to the whole, but without a theory to organize it all, it brings them (and us) no closer to the solution. As the movie nears its conclusion, a theory starts to form and the pieces begin to take shape; the confusion resolves into a satisfying form. The screenplay by Brian Helgeland and Hanson (from James Ellroy’s novel) is tight and calculated; nothing is wasted, and nothing is extraneous.

The whole movie is well made, but here are some people who deserve mention.

There’s Jeannine Claudia Oppewall, production designer. The sets, the cars, the costumes, and the makeup all cohere to create a complete world, but what’s even more amazing is that the acting has been stylized to fit that world as well. One wonders if she didn’t communicate with the actors before shooting.

There’s Peter Honess, whose editing is clear and concise, even in the potentially confusing gunfight at the end.

There’s Dante Spinotte, whose cinematography reveals the films world without making a spectacle of it. There are one or two outstanding shots (in particular, a shot at the end has one cop explaining himself while a god-like “jury” is reflected by glass), but these shots aren’t so showy as to divert one’s attention from the whole.

And of course there’s Hanson, the writer-producer-director. Until now hasn’t made any outstanding movies; he’s best known for the didn’t-totally-suck The Hand that Rocks the Cradle. He’s the conductor of this orchestra of talented filmmakers, and his vision became one excellent movie.

It’s difficult to say more because this movie is such a satisfying whole, that breaking it down into its component parts makes it sound common. I tried to find a review that pinpointed what made it so good, and I couldn’t find one that said it precisely.

Maybe the best way to recommend this movie is to make it the first one in ten months to get four stars.