Mulholland Falls is a Chinatown wannabe that comes up short in every department. Although loaded with talent on both sides of the camera, this sex-and-corruption-drenched mystery meller [from a screen story by Pete Dexter and Floyd Mutrux] about a big official cover-up in postwar LA simply feels underachieved.
Subject of a real-life bunch of elite cops called the ‘Hat Squad,’ four tough guys in the LAPD of the early 1950s known for their sartorial elegance, would appear to possess strong screen potential. Opening scene has group’s bulldog leader Max Hoover (Nick Nolte) and his boys (Chazz Palminteri, Michael Madsen, Chris Penn) busting up a mob party and dumping one of them down a ravine off the avenue of the title.
Hoover shortly becomes sidetracked by a professional crisis that cuts to the quick of his personal life. The body of beautiful young Allison Pond (Jennifer Connelly) is found face down in the middle of a field, a fragment of radioactive glass embedded in her foot. Some home movies feature, among other things, the late young lady in some frisky sex play with Hoover.
Trail in the case eventually leads to a desert military base active in A-bomb tests, as the top brass there, nutty genius Gen. Timms (John Malkovich), also was involved with the busy Miss Pond. Timms welcomes Hoover, even if it’s clear that there’s more going on at the base than first meets the eye.
Dialogue lacks the snap that another polish or two might have added, and direction by New Zealander Lee Tamahori, in his first American film, lacks anything approaching the brute force of his powerful debut pic, Once Were Warriors. The great Chinatown production designer Richard Sylbert has been recruited to re-create his magic here, but it doesn’t happen this time.
Nolte does a reasonable job of fashioning a full characterization of a heavy-hitting, stalwart cop. Palminteri functions rather one-dimensionally as his second banana, while Madsen and Penn are mysteriously bland.
Film features three unbilled cameos by name actors, most prominent of which is Bruce Dern, very good in one major scene as the chief of police. Turning up much more fleetingly are William Petersen, as a hood in the early going, and Rob Lowe.