Most period pictures about cops seem to be formulaic. You have the protagonist who is seen as a misfit in his precinct because he is either too violent or has too high of a moral fabric. You also have the villain who is usually some misunderstood gangster. They battle it out until at the end the cop is the victor. Put in some excellent set pieces, period costume and shots that copy old film noir tropes and you have a typical period drama. L.A. Confidential does all of these things, but somehow it feels different from any other movie that transverse the same material.
I think the main reason is that there are three cops who are all protagonists, even though you have your suspicions about them throughout the whole film. One cop, played by Russell Crowe, is a cop who bends the rules in order to serve justice. He beats up wife beaters, he kills a man who seemed to have raped a young woman, and he has no problem beating a confession out of someone. Another cop, played by Kevin Spacey, is a spotlight hungry career man. He does not seem to care for anything that doesn’t get his name in the magazines. His need to always be the celebrated one makes him not as clear-headed as he could be. The last cop, played by Guy Pierce, is a very by the books officer. At the beginning of the film, we here Guy talking to his Captain. The Captain asks him a series of questions all having to do with violence that he has to learn to deal with in order to make detective. He tells the Captain that he will not need to do any of the things in order to get the job done. All of these characters have the potential to turn into the villain of the piece in order keep the plot going. But none of the end up being. Instead the villain turns out to be someone nobody really suspected. This is only one surprise in this film. Another surprise is just how good all of these actors are in their roles. Russell Crowe is understated (which is usually saying something), Guy Pierce is lock jawed, Kevin Spacey plays the cool aloof cop all too well, but the best performance is out of Kim Basinger. She plays a hooker who is supposed to resemble Veronica Lake. At the beginning of the film I thought she was just going to be this vixen woman who beds men only to turn on them later. But she is in fact a lonely and sweet woman. She gives the film an emotional resonance that is absent from the procedural aspects of the rest of the plot. She is interesting to watch.
This film shouldn’t have been as good as it was. I shouldn’t have liked it as much as I did. It shouldn’t have surprised me in such a subtle way. And yet it is. That is all I feel like I have to say about it. Just go watch it and you will see what I am talking about.