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A neo-noir masterpiece: L.A Confidential turns twenty

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If you were to watch L.A Confidential today, you’d find it hard to believe it's twenty years old.

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Based on James Ellroy’s book of the same name, the neo-noir crime thriller was a huge success upon its release in 1997 and its fantastic visuals and all-star cast remain a match for any modern-day blockbuster.

The secret behind the film's success though, and the reason it holds up so well today, is the care that went into perfecting every detail, from the in-depth characters to the believable setting.

The atmosphere is an incredibly important part of L.A Confidential with 1950’s Los Angeles being wonderfully realised by director Curtis Hanson. The city feels like a realistic interpretation of the time period rather than a cartoonish Golden Age of Hollywood approach and although there aspects of that in the film, they feel far more grounded in reality, and are even poked fun at in Danny DeVito’s opening monologue.

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The film digs into the dirty side of Los Angeles during this time period, with a lot of focus on corruption, organised crime and racism to name a few. Going into the darker parts of the city’s history makes the film feel more authentic and plays into its running theme of exposing the façade of an idyllic Los Angeles.

It’s not all so dour though as L.A Confidential also captures the more glamorous side of the city of angels. The fictional TV show Badge of Honor is a nice call back to old detective dramas of the era whilst the excellent use of soundtrack allows for some 40s and 50s classics to add further authenticity.

The film’s setting doesn’t make it great on its own though. Luckily L.A Confidential has a wealth of memorable characters populating the sprawling city, each with their own distinct personalities.

The three lead characters are really what makes the film so memorable with some exceptional acting talent on display. Kevin Spacey is perfectly cast as the suave celebrity cop Jack Vincennes with the character’s big personality matching that of Spacey himself. However, as well as charm and wit, the actor also brings some genuine humanity to the character with his performance getting deeper as the film goes on. 

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Guy Pearce and Russel Crowe were relatively unknown in the U.S before L.A Confidential, but their fantastic performances certainly elevated their stardom soon after the film’s release. Pearce’s Edmund Exley could have easily been a one-dimensional, unlikeable character especially with his smug appearance in the first act. But the budding young officer has many more layers to his character and, as his motivations are explored later in the film, you come to appreciate how he is different from the rest of the police.

Layered would also apply when talking about Crowe’s Bud White. Arguably at his best in the role, Crowe perfectly balances Bud’s rage and vulnerability with a powerfully subtle performance that breaks every thuggish stereotype you’d place the character under.

The main take away from the three officers is that there's a lot more to them than meets the eye, much like the city of L.A itself.

The rest of the cast isn't too shabby either. Danny DeVito is excellent as the repulsive Sid Hudgens, a repulsive little man who thrives off the misfortune of others and his monologues littered throughout are a welcome bit of humour. James Cromwell is also great as Dudley Smith, the charming yet ice cold chief of police, whilst Kim Basinger puts in a touching performance as high-class prostitute Lynn Bracken.

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The well-written, in-depth characters and the wonderful backdrop of 1950s Los Angeles come together nicely in what is a very well thought out and memorable detective story. In short, it follows the three officers as they each dig deeper into who is responsible for the continuation of organised crime in the city after the arrest of the notorious Mickey Cohen.

One of the best aspects of the story is how it brings all the characters together. After being on opposite sides for the first half of the film, the characters are forced to come together after a certain point if they want to figure the case out. The chemistry between the three leads is great to watch, particularly between Pearce and Crowe as they bounce off each other with their clashing policing methods.

The film also delves into contemporary issues of the time. Police brutality and racism, in particular, are further explored in the main plot with people being violently interrogated, wrongfully framed and easily bribed. What makes the film so special in its handling of these issues is that they are portrayed in a way that is still relatable today. The film has a lot to say about justice in particular, or lack thereof with this is particularly reflected in the film’s end.

The film certainly warrants additional viewings. Once all is revealed, re-watching it offers an entirely new perspective and audiences will find themselves noticing small plot points that may have slipped past them the first time around. 

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Overall L.A Confidential is a near flawless crime thriller and great modern noir up there with the like of Chinatown and Blade Runner. The film remains just as good today as it was at its release, truly standing the test of time and is sure to still be just as great in another twenty years.

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