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 about a big official cover-up in postwar L.A. simply feels underachieved, as it lacks the heady atmosphere, tasty intrigue and dramatic punch the alluring premise would seem to promise. Commercial prospects are just OK.
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 and talent for dispensing their own rough brand of justice, 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 and Chris Penn) busting up a mob party and warning the gangsters that, “We don’t want any organized crime in L.A.,” before dumping one of them down a ravine off the avenue of the title.
But there is to be no more crime-busting of this swaggering nature, as 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. The oddness of the case is significantly compounded by the sudden appearance of some home movies that feature, among other things, the late young lady in some frisky sex play with Hoover, who had a six-month fling with her before breaking it off.
Hoping to keep all this a secret, if possible, from his languidly loving wife Katherine (Melanie Griffith), Hoover, a he-man who doesn’t easily reveal intimate details of his own life, is eventually forced to spill the beans to his partners. His best buddy, Coolidge (Palminteri), is a hot-head type currently in therapy to cool his temper, and screenwriter Pete Dexter’s most prominent running gag has the shrink-obsessed Coolidge repeatedly urging the bottled-up Hoover to talk about his problems so he can feel better.
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. Officious Col. Fitzgerald (Treat Williams) would prefer to lock the fancy hat boys in the brig and throw away the key, but Timms welcomes Hoover, even if it’s clear that there’s more going on at the base than first meets the eye.
A blackmailer sends a copy of the steamy footage to Katherine, provoking a blow-up with Hoover, who genuinely regrets his affair. But he must press ahead, fighting off pressure from the other Hoover in Washington to drop the case before uncovering the “shocking” truth behind his ex-lover’s murder.
After a fairly rocky beginning, the intrigue of the storyline begins to take hold, generating a reasonable amount of interest that peaks in a tense flight aboard a military transport in which several men tryto push each other out the open door of the plane. But nothing about the handling of the subject goes far enough to lend the film any true distinction.
The format of the script so obediently apes that of “Chinatown,” with the specter of official malfeasance hanging over everything, that one longs for a couple of left turns and subversion of expectations that never come. Dexter’s 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.”
Helmer here seems content just to get the story up on the screen without giving it a strong style or p.o.v.
The great “Chinatown” production designer Richard Sylbert has been recruited to re-create his magic here, but it doesn’t happen this time. Even Haskell Wexler’s lensing is something of a disappointment, handsome but straightforward work without his usual personal texture and flair.
Costume designer Ellen Mirojnick has clearly had fun with her job, but period details in general seem rather pushed to the fore but don’t coalesce to create a seductive, enveloping mood.
Nolte does a reasonable job of fashioning a full characterization of a heavy-hitting, stalwart cop who can’t stonewall either the professional or emotional implications of this disturbing case. Palminteri functions rather one-dimensionally as his second banana, while Madsen and Penn are mysteriously bland, given no opportunity to assert their distinctive personalities. Griffith is given nothing to do but lounge around the house until receiving the bad news about her husband, after which she sharply conveys her hurt and bitterness in some fierce marital confrontations.
Williams is suitably hateful as the military heavy, while Malkovich weighs in with another eccentric characterization as the frail, egghead general.
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 Peterson, as a hood in the early going, and Rob Lowe.