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Nashville Scene City of Angles

By Jim Ridley and Noel Murray

SEPTEMBER 22, 1997:  A blurb on the back of James Ellroy's L.A. Confidential calls him "the Master of Post-Modern Crime Fiction," and the best thing you can say for Ellroy is that that's not the way he reads. Postmodernism these days connotes a kind of smirky self-reflexivity, when it means anything at all, and Ellroy is way too cool a craftsman for that kind of guff. L.A. Confidential, his confoundingly dense, 500-page pulp extravaganza, may insert real people into a fictional universe, and it may imitate the cheap staccato of scandal-sheet slugs, but it's no self-amused pastiche. Ellroy's crime fiction is refreshing precisely because it's so concrete--he doesn't write as if crime were put on earth just to entertain us.

L.A. Confidential the movie shares that virtue; in style, it could almost be called post-postmodern. The filmmakers know they're contributing to a century of crime dramas, but their focus is on the story, not on their relationship to the canon. In the noir exercises that followed Pulp Fiction, crime is little more than an excuse for flighty pop-culture digressions, stylized violence, and winking references to other movies. In contrast, L.A. Confidential is pleasingly straightforward and square: Dirty deeds are motivated by the same grubby human motivations--money, jealousy, lust--that made Mike Hammer swat people senseless. The movie isn't an homage to hard-boiled detective fiction; it's the real McCoy.

The story hinges upon the rivalry among three LAPD cops: Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), a straight arrow with ruthless leadership ambitions; Bud White (Russell Crowe), a flawed bruiser with a dark past and a vendetta against wife-beaters; and Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), a smoothie who serves as technical advisor to a Dragnet-style cop show. In the book, their grudges slow-burn over an entire decade, stoked by a labyrinthine plot that involves a dozen unsolved cases, a million tangled allegiances, and the simultaneous rise of the smut industry and of Disneyland.

But the movie doesn't have six hours to tell the postwar history of Southern California. So screenwriters Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson miraculously trace the action back to a single gruesome event--the slaying of a half-dozen patrons at an all-night eatery called the Nite Owl. What follows is classic noir intrigue: a sultry blonde (Kim Basinger) with a deliberate resemblance to Veronica Lake; a shady procurer (David Strathairn, looking like a fusion of Walt Disney and Howard Hughes); and, behind the scenes, a scuzzy scandal-mag editor (Danny DeVito) with a finger in every poisoned pie.

As director, Hanson doesn't even try to approximate Ellroy's Western Union prose, too trigger-happy half the time for verbs. (From a near-haiku of an Ellroy gunfight: "Shrieks from the courtyard; running feet on gravel.... Over to the men, tasting blood--point-blank head shots.") But Hanson does the next best thing: He doesn't waste a second of screen time on anything that doesn't shove the story forward. L.A. Confidential has a lot of the same elements as last year's lumbering Mulholland Falls, in which every shot looked suitable for framing, but Hanson doesn't sit around waiting for us to acknowledge how cool everything is. The glamourpuss gloss of Dante Spinotti's cinematography becomes a continuing incidental pleasure, not the point of every scene.

Same goes for the actors, who inhabit the '50s milieu without resorting to conscious imitation--except for Kevin Spacey, who was encouraged by Hanson to keep Dean Martin in mind. He saunters through the movie with a suave charm that offsets the movie's dueling leads, Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, two fine Australian actors who deliver smashing performances. Pearce makes Exley's by-the-book rigidity admirable and obnoxious in equal amounts--just what the character demands--while Crowe is a thuggish wonder as Bud White. In a triple-digit supporting cast, James Cromwell erases all memories of Babe's genial farmer as an opportunistic bastard of an Irish lieutenant.

Police story Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce in L.A. Confidential. Photo by Peter Sorel.


L.A. Confidential does a masterful job of condensing Ellroy's myriad subplots into a workable whole. Trimmed as it is, the plot still expresses the novelist's vision of Los Angeles, and of America, as a world that cons itself with illusions of morality and righteousness, while its leaders traffick behind the scenes in death and depravity. The nobler the ideal, the bigger the lie. If there's any quibble about what Hanson and Helgeland kept or deleted, it's that the novel's most resonant plot thread--a grotesque string of child murders that parallels the rise of a Disney surrogate--has been excised entirely. So have some of the heroes' gamier exploits.

But one of the delights of the movie, if you've read the book, is being able to match wits with the screenwriters, who have done their damnedest to cram in as much of Ellroy's plotting as possible. To viewers unfamiliar with the source, L.A. Confidential will seem devilishly complex; to the book's readers, it'll seem dazzlingly streamlined. They'll both be right.--Jim Ridley


Child's play

When I was a young churchgoer, my diocese held an annual camp-cum-revival called "Happening," the likes of which were known to many denominations at the time. Created in the spirit of the '60s "be-in," "Happening" and its ilk were an attempt to reach the parishioner through spiritual perspective and positive reinforcement. At the end of an emotional weekend--the recurring highlight of which was a series of admiring letters from friends and loved ones--the camper left with an understanding of his place in the plan of a warm, caring God.

Hollywood has its own version of "Happening"--the action movie. Heroes usually emerge from their days of tribulation with a newfound understanding of something, be it the importance of family, the responsibility of power, or the effectiveness of a good, swift kick to the groin.

The Game--written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris and directed by David Fincher--makes these lessons a little more obvious than usual. Michael Douglas stars as Nicholas Van Orton, yet another variation on the uptight upperclassman that Douglas plays to perfection. On Nicholas' 48th birthday, his younger brother Conrad (Sean Penn) offers an adventure--a real-life role-playing game that will thrust Nicholas into a series of potentially life-threatening situations.

Not that Van Orton is aware of the danger when he signs up for "the game." As far as he knows, when he steps into the lobby of "Consumer Recreation Services," he's letting a successful corporation structure some benign leisure time. That impression changes the first time that bullets start flying around his head, and he begins to suspect that "CRS" is an elaborate scam to separate him from his fortune.

A movie like The Game--with its mind-bending, tricky premise--makes several presumptions about what its characters will do. Several times, I found myself thinking, "What if Nicholas didn't get in that elevator or that cab?" or "What if he just threw that clown doll away, instead of bringing it into his living room?" Then again, what if he never wandered into the "CRS" offices? There'd be no movie...which is sort of the point. On an important level, The Game is aware that it is a cinematic construct. Just check out Nicholas' childhood flashbacks, which are halfway between home movies and art installations, or the movie-style chase scenes in which he continually finds himself. Conrad's gift to Nicholas is the chance to be a movie hero.

It's better to ignore the movie's many stretches of reason and just enjoy what works. There's a lot to like in The Game, including Douglas' grumbly performance and Fincher's sense of creepy style. The film moves at a brisk but deliberate pace, and it manages a fair level of suspense and even a little poignancy. Running through The Game is the specter of suicide--Nicholas' father killed himself at 48, and Nicholas himself is haunted by the possibility that he could snuff it at any time. As he gets tossed into his predicaments, his senses are heightened and he becomes alive, perhaps for the first time, to the small details all around him.

That said, there's something unfair about the way The Game plays out. For one thing, despite some initial rules, the game that Nicholas is playing is not much of a game at all. Things just happen to him; he rarely plays an active role in planning his escapes or solving his problems. A friend of mine pointed out that the film should more accurately be titled A Series of Pranks. The filmmakers don't have nearly enough fun with their material.

There are also inherent limitations to The Game's folding-around-on-itself framework. For one thing, it encourages the audience to try to outguess the movie, and when a viewer is actively thinking ahead of a story, he can't quite be transported by it. Fincher and company want the experience of The Game to be more than just another thrill-ride; they want us to share Nicholas' paranoia, and to emerge along with him into the light of self-realization.

Unfortunately, we in the audience are too busy looking around the corner to sympathize fully with his plight. While Nicholas hopes that this is "only a game," we are well aware that it is "only a movie." At the film's conclusion, Nicholas at least has a revelatory moment. That can't be said for the audience.--Noel Murray


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