Cast: Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Kim Basinger, James Cromwell, David Strathairn, Danny DeVito
Oscar Wins: Best Supporting Actress (Kim Basinger), Best Adapted Screenplay (Brian Helgeland, Curtis Hanson)
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director (Curtis Hanson), Best Cinematography (Dante Spinotti), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Jeannine Oppewall, Jay Hart), Best Sound (Andy Nelson, Anna Behlmer, Kirk Francis), Best Film Editing (Peter Honess), Best Music, Original Dramatic Score (Jerry Goldsmith)
SUMMARY: In 1953, the Los Angeles Police Department is fighting to create a new reputation as proficient and corruption-free. Early on, three officers stand out: Edmund “Ed” Exley (Guy Pearce), Wendell “Bud” White (Russell Crowe), and Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey). Exley is the son of a famed officer that was killed in the line of duty; Exley is focused solely on living up to this reputation. However, he repeatedly rejects Captain Dudley Smith’s (James Cromwell) policy of using violence to ensure justice. In contrast, White has no problem using violence while on the job. He is particularly disdainful of men who abuse women, and often takes matters into his own hands before backup arrives. Vincennes is the most senior of the three: he is a narcotics detective who is also the technical advisor for a popular TV show called “Badge of Honor”. Vincennes also works with Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), the publisher of a tabloid magazine: Hudgens gets tips on potential arrests, Vincennes makes the arrest and gets the credit, and Hudgens gets the picture and story. On Christmas Eve, White and his partner, Dick Stensland, are picking up booze for the department party. White meets Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), a Veronica Lake look-alike, and sees that she is with several others. One of these women appears to have black eyes, but when White tries to talk to her he is stopped by former police officer Leland “Buzz” Meeks, who now works as a bodyguard to millionaire Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn). That evening, there is a riot in the jail when several officers attack some men suspected of beating fellow cops. Exley is one of the few witnesses willing to testify, but he only agrees to do so in return for a promotion to Detective Lieutenant. The case does not reach trial, but Stensland is still fired. After this, White is personally picked by the Captain as he muscle for a quiet operation in which they “discourage” potential criminals from moving to town. One evening, there is a multiple homicide at a café called the Nite Owl — and Stensland is one of the victims. The police quickly identify three African-American men as the killers, and arrest them. When they escape, a shootout between them and Exley occurs, and Exley kills all of them. However, White senses that there is more going on in the case. He recognizes one of the victims as the woman with the black eyes — Susan Lefferts — from Christmas Eve, and from this tracks down Lynn Bracken and Pierce Patchett. He learns that among other illegal operations, Patchett is running a high-dollar prostitution ring, featuring girls who look like celebrities (the black eyes were from plastic surgery). Despite this knowledge, White begins a relationship with Bracken.
Meanwhile, Vincennes agrees to help Hudgens set up the district attorney, catching him in a homosexual relationship. They get a small-time actor to play the part of potential lover, but when the time comes for Vincennes to burst in, he discovers that the actor is dead, and the D.A. gone. This finally seems to reach the jaded detective, and he begins to actively (though secretly) investigate the murder. Like White, Exley has begun to have doubts about the Nite Owl case, and starts digging back in. He enlists Vincennes’s help, in return for his own help on the D.A. case. Exley also tells Vincennes of his father’s unsolved murder, noting that he calls the culprit “Rollo Tomasi”. Still on his own, White goes to the home of Lefferts’s mother, and discovers the body of Buzz Meeks under her house. He also learns that his former partner Stensland knew Patchett, Meeks and Lefferts. Exley eventually follows the same clues, and it is he who gets the body removed. However, while White knows who the dead man is, Exley has to wait for an ID. He does realize what White is doing, and that White is involved with Bracken. Vincennes continues to investigate, and realize that there is a long-standing connection between Meeks, Stensland and Captain Smith. Based on the evidence from both cases, he comes to suspect that the three were working together to take over the drug empire in Los Angeles, and that Smith is now trying to eliminate everybody else involved. When he tries to confront Smith, Vincennes is shot and killed, but not before saying, “Rollo Tomasi”. Smith asks Exley about this name, which clues Exley into the fact that Smith is responsible for the murder. In the meantime, Smith uses Hudgens to turn the violent White against Exley, before killing Hudgens. White does attack Exley, but Exley convinces him that they are on the same side. Together, they confirm their suspicions about Smith from the blackmailed D.A.; they try to talk to Patchett again, but find him murdered. They then engage in a final confrontation with Smith and his henchmen at a secluded motel. During the gunfight, Exley and White manage to kill all the attackers except Smith, who enters and shoots White. However, White stabs him in the leg, which allows Exley to gain control (though White is shot in the face by Smith). Smith thinks that the moral Exley will not shoot him, but as they walk outside Exley does just that. In the aftermath, both Smith and Exley are credited as heroes (in order for the department to save face). Exley receives a medal, and after the ceremony sees Bracken waiting for him. She takes him to her car, where White is waiting. She tells Exley that she is going home to Arizona, and taking White with her.
MY TAKE: This movie had the same bad luck as The Wizard of Oz: it’s really good, but was overshadowed by a huge blockbuster that came out the same year and stole all the Oscars. In that case, it was Gone With the Wind; in this case, it was Titanic. All of the Oscars that this movie lost went to Titanic. If the plot seems complicated, it is, but not indecipherably so. Mostly, the trouble comes from trying to keep a lot of characters straight, and figuring out how a lot of angles fit together. The kicker, of course, is that the culprit is their boss. Basically, he was running a masterful corrupt force (or section of the force), that was about to take over the L.A. drug trade. For years, the operation had been running schemes, and exploiting the system to hide their crimes. It is only when three men independently start looking into two closed cases that they figure out what is going on, and they still are almost unable to stop Captain Smith. This is a movie that you have to really pay attention to — I was doing something else during the first hour, and actually had to go back and rewatch it, distraction free, in order to understand what was happening. I am glad I did though, because it’s a really good movie. It seems to have a bit of an all-star cast, but in reality Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce were both basically unknowns. Pearce lived in Australia, and had done some work, but not anything major Hollywood. Crowe was from New Zealand, and had much the same background. Obviously, things turned out all right for them, especially for Crowe, who won Best Actor a few years later. You might also note that Simon Baker, from The Devil Wears Prada and the TV shot “The Mentalist” (among other things), plays the small-time actor in Vincennes’s case. I have to admit, I was completely shocked when Vincennes was shot. I expected a confrontation, but I did not expect it to be that abrupt. It reminded me a lot of when Leonardo DiCaprio is shot in The Departed — there is no warning. It actually takes you a few seconds to process what just happened. I was also afraid White had died, but I did notice that they didn’t show a funeral or anything, so I wasn’t too surprised that he lived. His character is like the Hulk, so he’s probably too tough to die.
RATING: Very good, but pay attention.