MULHOLLAND FALLS, a shiny but blunt 1996 stab at period noir, the violence and sex naturally cranked up, fell in the undimmed shadow cast by 1974s Chinatown and was further dimmed after 1997’s untopped L.A. Confidential. A talent-packed cast, vintage threads and some shiny cars weren’t enough to satisfy reviewers or pull crowds. At a $29,000,000 cost, the $11,500,000 gross was case closed, and on the rundown of 1996 fare the dispiriting dive into deceit, corruption and homicides limped in at 117th place. *
Los Angeles, the early 1950’s. ‘Lt. Maxwell Hoover’ (Nick Nolte) leads a squad of well-turned-out bone-breaking cops (Chazz Palminteri, Michael Madsen, Chris Penn) who employ “unorthodox” tactics to purge hoods from sinning in the sun. A murdered hooker (Jennifer Connelly, ravishing) who had been a lover of Hoover’s is linked to secretly made sex films that implicate ‘Gen. Timms’ (John Malkovich), an important figure in the Atomic Energy Commission. Motives and bodies accumulate as conflicted Hoover and his men bruise their way up the chain.
Neat premise, great cast, gleaming production (Haskell Wexler, cameraman), startling action, voyeuristic sex, but Lee Tamahori’s direction wobbles in pacing (slow) and tone and Pete Dexter’s screenplay jumbles some good dialogue exchanges with others that clunk, especially the flatlined attempts to interject some humorous byplay with the members of the squad, particularly the awkward segments with Palminteri (he’s not good here). The setup gives you no-one to root for, and the payoff at the finish amounts to a shrug.
Malkovich is good, Connelly alluring, second-billed Melanie Griffith has little to do. Others in play: Treat Williams, Daniel Baldwin, Andrew McCarthy, William L. Peterson, Bruce Dern, Rob Lowe, Kyle Chandler, Louise Fletcher, Ed Lauter. All of them are fine and all are stuck with unlikeable characters. Dave Grusin’s score is one-note; Jerry Goldsmith would’ve goosed more energy into it. All told, an interesting misfire.
* The idea of the team was based (loosely) on “The Hat Squad”, four dapper detectives who were a legend in the department, some of whom later became judges. Dern’s police chief’s real-life corollary would have been the controversial William H. Parker.