This movie was loosely based on a book by James Ellroy, written with staccato sentences as if the story were told by a police dispatcher. The plot revolves around four main characters: the by-the-book Detective Sergeant Edmund Exley (played with frozen-faced stoicism by Guy Pearce); Officer Wendell “Bud” White (played by Russell Crowe), a cop with a short fuse, particularly (but hardly exclusively) when it comes to men who beat women; Detective Sergeant Jack Vincennes (played with slick aplomb by Kevin Spacey), a narc whose claim to fame is as technical advisor for a TV crime drama, while serving as confidential Hollywood gossip source for Hush-Hush tabloid magazine, run by Sid Hudgens (played smarmily by Danny DeVito); and Captain Dudley Smith (played by James Cromwell), who’s the boss, dispensing wisdom, justice, and beatings with an Irish brogue.
The plot is, to say the least, complicated and made even less coherent because books aren’t screenplays and so much of the original material had to be excised in order to make the story more cinematic and less detail-oriented.
But the bottom line is that there’s this mass murder at a place called the Night Owl Café, a case investigated by the upright Exley, but which also draws Bud’s attention for reasons one can barely discern without a scorecard.
Some of what makes the movie great is that the book’s adaptation and the production give viewers a deep feel for the corruption under the sun-drenched surfaces of the City of Angels back in the 1950s. The fact that the message is as relevant and fresh today as it was back in the time period of the movie’s setting doesn’t change the film’s feel of nostalgia. You could argue that setting the story during that period is not only an homage to the film noir era, but a way of distancing viewers from the horrible similarities between now and then.
On top of that, Bud and Exley are both (in a sense) the movie’s protagonists and are clearly antagonistic toward one another. This animosity builds to a breaking point at which the two end up throwing punches (and furniture) at each other. It’s all, of course, over a woman (Kim Basinger as a call girl surgically altered to look like Veronica Lake – if you squint at her.) And what better way for men to bond than to beat the crap out of each other over a dame?
Yet, despite convolutions that would make Raymond Chandler’s head spin, the movie works. From the sleazy appeal of Vincennes and Sid Hudgens to the point where Exley and Bud join forces to wring the truth out of the D.A. and go on to a big confrontation at the end.
One final thought: this movie got robbed at the Oscars. It garnered nine nominations and, deservedly won for Best Adapted Screenplay, but lost Best Picture to what I call “that movie about the boat.”
In any case, it’s a great example of a neo-noir film! And deserves no less than two thumbs up! 🙂