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Blu-ray Review: L.A. Confidential

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L.A. Confidential is perhaps one of the finest film noir movies of the modern era. Perhaps not up to the standards of The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep and Neo-Noir Chinatown, but a great example of the genre. It has been upgraded in its HD debut on Blu-ray, does the format bring the movie to the next generation, or does it show its age? Read on to find out.

The Movie

L.A. Confidential is a complex film with an all-star cast. The movie is set in Los Angeles in the early 1950s. The cities lead crime boss, Mickey Cohen, has been arrested and there is a void in the city. Someone is trying to replace him and is killing off his crew. This is the backdrop quickly explained via narratives given by gossip magazine reporter Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito).

click to view larger imageNow that this high-profile criminal is gone the L.A. police department needs to clean up its image, they can no longer appear brutish and overzealous. Following a happenstance, but very public riot in the main precinct, we are introduced to a capable but violent officer, Bud White (Russell Crowe), an ambitious officer willing to do anything to get ahead, Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), and a degenerate officer Dick Stenslend (Graham Beckel).

Exley offers to testify that Stenslend started the riot and help the precinct save face if he is promoted. White is given a slap on the wrist and is tasked with helping the Captain, Dudley Smith (James Cromwell), to perform clandestine shakedowns of mob agents from other cities.

The story starts in earnest when Stenslend (freshly ‘retired’ from the police force) is found murdered in a coffee shop and a Rita Hayworth look-alike model is found with him. Evidence quickly points towards four colored men as the culprits and a manhunt is instigated.

A celebrity police officer, Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), gets involved and is pivotal in the manhunt, but in the process of the investigation he starts hearing about a club that specializes in celebrity-look-alike escorts. Vincennes starts casually looking into the clues, and becomes truly involved after an ethical mistake he makes causes an innocent death

click to view larger imageWhite and Exley meanwhile pursue other leads (separately)and discover the trail Vincennes was looking at begins with a Veronica Lake look-alike, Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger). Bracken becomes involved with White and raises questions about what is happening within this city of Angels.

What everyone believes is the truth starts to unravel and all the principle characters start to come together as the mystery start to become clear.  L.A. Confidential is a great movie, there is no denying that. At times it is a little overly complex, at other times it over explains, but the great acting and fast pace keep you riveted at all times.

The movie is full of standout performances; this was Crowe's breakthrough role in Hollywood and he turned in a stellar performance as the violent but moral officer.  Kim Basinger won an Academy Award for her excellent portrayal of the confident but conflicted seductress Lynn Bracken. Pierce, Cromwell, Spacey, and DeVito all help to make this a worthy entry in film-noir history.

The Video

L.A. Confidential is a movie set mostly at night with all the lights and activity of L.A. as its backdrop. The transfer while capable is not up to the standards of other period movies and suffers at times because of the quality. Black levels in particular were weak and scenes were brightened to show characters better resulting in grey-blacks instead of true black levels.

click to view larger imageColor is very subdued and imagery is relatively flat, this results in very two-dimensional imagery that does not have the pop of wow-factor Blu-rays like Blade Runner and The Aviator. Just because a movie set in the ’50s (or the future) does not mean it should not look substantial. The subdued colors really mute the feeling in many scenes and hold the movie back at a visual level.

I know it sounds like I hated the transfer, I didn’t, it is far superior to any previous release (I own this on DVD and VHS) but when you see 40-year-old movies restored looking better (2001: A Space Odyssey) then this 10-year-old one you have to wonder why.  It is, however, a capable transfer and does make this the best-looking version of the film to date.

The Audio

Although L.A. Confidential features a Dolby Digital TruHD 5.1 soundtrack, it just doesn’t seem to know how to use it. A lot of the noise coming out of the surround mix is flat and artificial-sounding. Dialogue is handled very well though, with generally all conversations clearly understood over action and musical noises.

Bass is underutilized and when it is in play, it feels hollow and does little to add to the atmosphere. The silver lining to this mix is the soundtrack; full of big bands and memorable tunes from the era, the music is well balanced and sounds great coming from my speakers.

This is a movie with a healthy mix of action and dialogue. The sound mix on this Blu-ray, if done right, could have elevated a great movie even higher. Unfortunately the mix is simply average and does little to add an HD audio feel to the movie.

The Extras

click to view larger imageI was speechless when I saw the first extra listed on the disc, an audio commentary featuring every major actor and production staff that worked on the movie. When I listened to it, I realized the commentary was culled from many interviews the cast and crew participated in. This does not make it bad in any way; I was just excited at the thought of another Lord of the Rings-style commentary track.

  • Audio Commentary: As mentioned every one but director Curtis Hanson was involved in this track introduced as scenes dictated. We hear from Crowe, Pearce, Spacey, Cromwell, Basinger, DeVito and David Strathairn as well as the author, screenwriters, cinematographer, editor, producer, costume and production designers, and film critic Andrew Sarris.
  • Whatever You Desire–the Making of L.A. Confidential (HD): Interviews with Hanson discussing dealing with the studio and a smaller then ideal budget.
  • A True Ensemble–the Case of L.A. Confidential (HD): Hanson discusses why he did not cast big names, not mentioning budget as a reason. Ironically many of the actors in this film (especially Russell Crowe) have continued to have exceptional careers.
  • L.A. Confidential from Book to Screen (HD): A look at the challenges of adapting a detailed novel to a two-hour screenplay.
  • Sunlight and Shadow–the Visual Style of L.A. Confidential (HD): Interview with cinematographer Dante Spinotti discussing the film noir clichés and how he wanted to approach with a modern look at the genre.
  • L.A. Confidential TV Pilot: A laughable pilot starring Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Vincennes (ugh) that was made to promote (unsuccessfully) a TV show based on the movie/book.
  • Off the Record (SD): A standard making of documentary with interviews and screen tests from Crowe and Pearce.
  • There are also numerous odds and ends such as photos, a music only track of the score, some vignettes of the locations and trailers/TV ads.

By and large this is a great amount of extras, while the audio commentary was misleading, the material is all of high quality and most of it was presented in high definition.


The Final Word

L.A. Confidential is still one of my favorite movies and it was a pleasure to experience it again. Watching it on Blu-ray, while improved over DVD, did leave something to be desired unfortunately. While the quality of the acting, story and setting still resonates, there seemed to be wasted potential on the High-Definition format.

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About Michael Prince

Looking at all things Geek - news, rants and updates from the worlds of gaming, tech, blu-ray, novels, and music.