In a tiny nod to Chinatown, the film on whose palette L.A. Confidential is clearly working, we see a woman wearing an obtrusive bandage across her nose, and once again, it's the visual consequence of being too nosy. Naturally, nothing is quite what it seems in these cinematic lands. Here, a bloody trail doesn't necessarily lead to a body. L.A. Confidential ups this ante even further by locating itself much closer to Hollywood, where the deception of appearances is interconnected with the cosmetic fakery of show business, where the morality of a man in uniform could be just as artificial as the sensationalism of tabloid pulp.

This is the film's surrounding ethos, and at its center is a noir-ish plunge into the darker recesses of human nature. Like Chinatown, it records the cultural makeup of period Los Angeles, here being the television-dawning early 1950s, while detailing the investigation of a murder that leads into a labyrinthine web of wickedness. It's a surefire dramatic seed, but it can make for an easy misfire in the execution. It requires confident handling of narrative complexity, an ability to capture an atmosphere without letting it overwhelm, a sense of character that gives the story as much emotional heft as genre heft, and the skill to weave it all into an overarching artistic vision.

L.A. Confidential is, first and foremost, a triumph of economy. Adapted from the James Ellroy best-seller by Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson and directed by Hanson, it has the satisfying breadth and density of a novel. Not a single shot is wasted, not for period detail or for gratuitous style or for mindless action. Period songs and the pulsating score by Jerry Goldsmith (who also happened to score Chinatown) are used sparingly and effectively. Characters make off-the-cuff remarks that turn out to have great import later on. Even the sounds of the character names are meaningful. Bud White (Russell Crowe) is an officer completely direct and forthright; the fact that his directness usually involves a punch in the midsection only serves to make him a more effective lawman in the ethical shakiness of L.A. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is a far more elegantly slippery fellow, whose idea of police work is to act as a consultant on the current 'Dragnet'-type television hit, or to solve the crime that most expediently gets him a photograph on the front page of the local tabloid. Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is far more awkward and hard; he has an unyielding sense of right and the intelligence to play the political games that will achieve those ends.

The trick of L.A. Confidential, and one of the narrative characteristics that separates it from Chinatown, is that it follows all three of these men concurrently investigating the same central crime. Miraculously, the film is able to manage the task with a remarkable level of clarity. Not only does the attention-demanding device not lead to confusion, it works as highly satisfying counterpoint, as each man uses his different style to work towards the same result.

Director Hanson, whose past work (The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, The River Wild) did not indicate a raging talent, has done a exceptional job here. He knows how to let atmosphere hang around the edges of a story, and although he doesn't do anything awe-inspiring with the camera, there is style here--it's the sort born out of visual minimalism, where a close-up is highly effective precisely because there are so few of them. Perhaps Hanson's greatest success is in his casting, which has been handled with a commendable degree of intelligence and riskiness.

This is the rare film that displays a perfect sense of star power, and how it plays to an audience. Spacey's idiosyncratically calm line deliveries give the character of Vincennes a movie star's suave glow, but the actor also finds more human levels when the script requires it. Continuing with the casting logic are the roles of two integral figures: the local celebrity tabloid columnist, played with a pleasing jocular greasiness by Danny DeVito, and a Veronica Lake lookalike, who doesn't look much like Veronica Lake, but looks a lot like Kim Basinger, which for this movie's purposes is perfectly fine.

But for sheer acting muscle, little-known Australians Crowe and Pearce lead the way. Crowe (Proof, The Quick and the Dead) and Pearce (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) each bring a powerfully ferocious determination to their roles. Crowe pierces the screen with his eyes, and the rage pours off his face. Pearce's chiseled looks and awkward smile are equally effective, and he imbues his character with a tricky earnestness that smoothes over a couple of unconvincing moments. The story finds its strongest thread in the coming together of these two polar opposites of masculine aggression, the physical and the political. And if the film can't find a way to have their coming together reach a satisfying conclusion, it's only because it's set the bar so high. It doesn't satisfy in the same way as Chinatown, its vision is not nearly as far-reaching, and its concerns are more earthbound than the operatic heights reached by its forefather. As the title implies, L.A. Confidential is more interested in delivering the prosaic satisfactions derived from pulpy melodrama. And it demonstrates that, with strong enough characters, even pulp can be nourishing.

--David Luty