Noir Kind Of Town

FOR A SUNNY TOWN, LOS ANGELES has sure inspired a lot of dark movies. From ""Double Indemnity'' to ""Kiss Me Deadly'' to ""Chinatown,'' L.A. has been the capital city of film noir. Time will tell if L.A. Confidential has the staying power to warrant inclusion on this august list. It has the right ingredients: a dense and satisfying plot that gives off the pungent odor of corruption, a rich cast of deeply flawed characters whose actions resist snap judgments and a nostalgia-free re-creation of the city in 1953 that lets us see the line that connects the LAPD of the era of Mickey Cohen and Johnny Stompanato to the LAPD of Daryl Gates and Rodney King.

Director Curtis Hanson and his co-writer, Brian Helgeland, have taken a massively complex novel by James Ellroy and boiled it down to a no-flab screenplay that still eludes easy synopsis. A mass murder in a downtown cafE sets off an investigation that will spiral off in many directions, ultimately encompassing a prostitution ring that features girls surgically altered to resemble movie stars, drug-running mobsters, celebrity gutter journalism, police corruption, political blackmail, the racial biases of the LAPD and even a good, sexy love story.

At the heart of the tale are three cops with radically conflicting agendas who find themselves pursuing the same dangerous truth. Bud White (Russell Crowe) is the most volatile. Used by the chief of police (James Cromwell) for his muscle, he has no compunction about planting evidence if he thinks his guy is guilty. Bud has a thing about rescuing women in peril, and call girl Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger) definitely arouses his chivalry, as well as his lust. Squeaky-clean Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is his opposite; brainy and political and wildly ambitious, he's a perfect poster boy for the department's new image. Publicity-hungry Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is all preening vanity: he's the adviser on a ""Dragnet''-like TV show, and he feeds his appetite for the spotlight by working alongside tabloid dirtmonger Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), setting up celebrity busts that will increase his fame.

One of the unexpected pleasures of ""L.A. Confidential'' is that your sympathies (or antipathies) for these guys keep changing. The brutal guy has more brain--and the smart guy more guts--than is first apparent. These are juicy roles, and the three stars do them full justice. (If you can't quite place Pearce, it's because the last time you saw him he was in drag in ""Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.'') Basinger brings a touching, bruised sultriness to her good-bad-girl role.

Hanson has always been a good craftsman, making solid entertainment out of formulaic material (""The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,'' ""The River Wild''). But here he gets to sink his teeth into meatier stuff, and he raises the level of his game. ""L.A. Confidential'' asks the audience to raise its level a bit, too--you actually have to pay attention to follow the double-crossing intricacies of the plot. The reward for your work is dark and dirty fun.