It's not an awful movie but it comes rather late in a cycle of cops vs. corruption in high places during the fifteen years between Chinatown (set in 1937) and L. A. Confidential (1954) and encompassing True Confessions (ca. 1948) and Farewell my Lovely (1941). That is to say, we've seen much of this before. So have the writers, the director, and the composer. So instead of John Huston as a corrupt entrepreneur we have John Malkovich as an apparently homicidal head of the Atomic Energy Commission. The period is evoked by clothing and cars, especially a big black Buick convertible over which the camera lingers like a proud lover. But, forsooth, what ugly beasts they were, weighing as much as a Sherman tank, getting the same mileage as a prime mover, having the suspension of a giant trampoline, and decorated like a whore with chromium and fake louvres. The cops occupy the same gray area as the cops in L. A. Confidential or any of the other similar movies, dumping unwanted gangsters off "Mulholland Falls," their mocking name for a steep hill off Mulholland Drive.
Good cast, though. Nolte brings his brute-force persona to the role, gravel voiced, tough, inelegant. Chaz Palmintieri is a semi-comic sidekick (not his forte) who is, we can tell before too long, fated to undergo what so many other devoted partners without prominent roles undergo. Malkovitch is great as a wheezing, dying, ex-general who gets off a good riff on how, since atoms are mostly empty space, the very floor we stand on, our very own bodies, are little more than empty space giving off an illusion of solidity.
(I used to tell my classes the same thing and when I was finished and waiting for the applause, I'd notice that everyone was staring at me as if I'd turned into some kind of marmoset.) Jennifer Connolly has only a few lines, but what lines they are! There are few more gorgeous creatures than she now gracing the screen. Melanie Griffith is given a washed-out very blonde look. She delivers in her small part what is probably her most intense and believable performance. At no time was I ever embarrassed for her. Treat Williams is pretty good as an eminence verte. The other actors aren't faceless -- we recognize Baldwin and Ed Lauter -- but they might as well be.
The art direction lacks the temporal precision found in Chinatown or Farewell My Lovely, where even the tumblers and highball glasses were diachronically sound. Except for some subtle work in the general's house. The living room is, without ostentation, pretty gruesome in its decor -- stuffed pheasants, a table lamp that stands on (get this) stuffed deer feet!
No wonder the general babbles on about atoms. The score is as derivative as the rest of the movie. Dave Grusin has borrowed heavily from Chinatown's melancholy theme, arpeggios on plucked strings, and tremolo violins bespeaking uneasiness.
Underneath it all, though, it's another cops vs. villain movie. There are a couple of shootouts, a double plane-throwing, one or two mashed bodies. The characters are almost desperately differentiated but they are not captured. They don't do things like get a shave while they argue with other customers and banter with the barber. The film doesn't really seem to HAVE much of a setting, and it doesn't have much in the way of inhabitants. The scenes are strictly functional. Nothing is lingered over. There is no beauty here.
On the plus side, there are some great shots of a DC-3 (or C47), one of the most pilot-friendly aircraft ever put together. Some of them are still flying commercially after 50 years. How friendly are they? A crew was flying one through dense fog over Greenland during the war when the flight started getting very rough indeed, pieces of ice banging against the fuselage, vibrations, terrible shocking bumps. Then the engines stopped entirely and the plane slowed to a halt. The crew found that they had made a wheels-up landing atop a glacier without knowing it. On the negative side, a minor carp, in the scene when we first meet Treat Williams, a radio operator in the background says something like "Tango three, out." Wrong phonetic alphabet. In the early 50s it would still have been "Tare three, out."