LA Confidential has all of the qualities that, over time, earn a film the honorific, "classic." The story is involved and involving, and quickly pulls the viewer into trying to solve the mystery along with the main characters. The script is brisk and clever, the editing moves along at a solid pace that builds toward the end, the images of old LA are realistic and convincing, and the character portrayals are more than wonderful, they're truly memorable. It's safe to say that in many respects this film provided break-out roles for Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, and Guy Pearce.
Crowe's Bud White steals the show -- brutal, tender, complex, and in his own way, rigidly principled, White is a powerful character whose presence dominates scenes. Crowe's earlier role in Virtuosity showed a tiny, violent piece of Bud White, but lacked his complexity and depth. Bud White showed the world what Russell Crowe can really do on screen.
LA Confidential similarly makes the best use of Kevin Spacey's abilities, in his role as the world-weary, cynical, smart and smarmy Jack Vincennes. Spacey's earlier work (e.g., The Usual Suspects) is terrific and memorable, but Jack Vincennes paved the way for the Spacey characterizations viewers love in his later films (e.g., Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, American Beauty, Pay it Forward, and the less acclaimed Beyond the Sea).
The role of Edmund Exley provided Guy Pearce with an opportunity to demonstrate some of his enormous range as an actor, alternately appearing naive, self-righteous, scared, street-wise, and menacing. These qualities appear in the widely varied but dynamic characters he has created in subsequent films (Memento, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Time Machine).
More than reliable, the supporting cast also creates characters that are believable, complex, and a pleasure to watch. Kim Basinger's wise and weary Lynn Bracken may represent her best work on screen. James Cromwell, often cast as a failed administrator, is wonderfully hate-able as the cool and corrupt Captain Dudley Smith. Danny DeVito romps as slimy Sid Hudgens, and David Strathairn's Pierce Morehouse Patchett is subtle and believable. Patchett almost certainly brought Straithairn the role of Edward R. Murrow in 2005's Good Night, and Good Luck. Ron Rifkin, Matt McCoy, and the rest of the cast also bring realism and energy to their roles, making the film solid and believable.
The story itself is compelling and enjoyable, a cops-and-robbers whodunit with several twists. The dialog ranges from moving to hilarious to terrifying to inspiring, without losing the story's consistency. The story's conclusion is dramatic, action-packed, and contains a few sweet surprises.
Anyone interested in seeing the early work of Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, or Guy Pearce should see LA Confidential. Anyone interested in seeing a great film should see LA Confidential. It's one of those films worth owning and watching a few times a year. Which is to say, it's a classic.