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Crime pics are everywhere. There are comedy crime movies, action crime movies, metaphysical crime movies, sly and wry narrative fractures masquerading as crime movies, even romantic crime movies. We've been so over-exposed to murder, robbery and police procedure - - both on television and in the cinema - - that what used to be a genre in itself has now become the conventional canvas upon which every modern story is painted. It's a background noise of gunshots and shouting so familiar that we barely notice it any more.

But LA Confidential, uniquely, is a pure crime movie. Rather than use criminal activity as a plot-driving framework, it wrestles with the utter essence of the genre. There's more than enough action in the film's two-and-a-quarter hours to satisfy the most thrill-hungry viewer, but LA Confidential is made stunning, rather than merely gripping, through both the strength of its characters and the brutal rigor of its moral analysis.

The genius of the film - - and it is a film of genius, without a doubt - - is that it holds an investigation into the human soul's capacity for evil, while somehow still managing to be funny, thrilling, lively, shocking and unremittingly entertaining.

It was a mixture potent enough to garner a Palme d'Or nomination at the usually Hollywood-phobic Cannes, and has invited favourable comparisons with such screen legends as Chinatown and The Godfather. For this reviewer, LA Confidential is superior to the former; it's richer, more dynamic and less reverentially styled.

Director Curtis Hanson is not a man familiar with this kind of acclaim. His last feature was the ultra lame The River Wild, which would still have seemed outdated if it had come out five years earlier, when ridiculous psycho movies were in vogue. Before that he gave us the commercially successful, but utterly dreary, The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, and Bad Influence, with James Spader and Rob Lowe, which had a likeable edgy premise, but never rose above the gimmicky.

But with this, Hanson - fired up by the extraordinary power of James Ellroy's breathtaking novel to the extent that he took on scripting and production duties as well - has risen to an oxygen-requiring height of achievement. The adaptation of the book is exceptionally accomplished: he adds several new elements - including one astounding twist, and a satisfyingly cinematic ending - thereby condensing and clarifying a ferociously complex story, while still preserving its spirit and power.

The script is matched by an ensemble of intensely committed performances. Kevin Spacey is as attractive, funny and sad as ever, while Babe's James Cromwell is perfectly cast as the fatherly Dudley Smith. Danny DeVito, although hardly stretching himself, is similarly suited to the role of Sid Hudgeons, sleazy tabloid editor. Kim Basinger is both untouchable and sluttish as the film's only significant female, far more a symbol than a real person (Ellroy can't write women, rarely even bothering to).

But the most extraordinary work by far comes from the two main leads: Russell Crowe - wonderful in Proof - and Guy 'Mike from Neighbours' Pearce - entertaining in The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert. Both have matured far beyond expectation, and produce driven performances of gulp-inducing physicality. James Woods is the only actor previously capable of taking on an Ellroy-written lead - - in the grotesque Cop, from an early, immature novel - - and Pearce in particular has some of his shatteringly unpredictable presence.

With this volume of intensity up on the screen, backed by such a daring and well-crafted script, snappy design and an unerring sense of pace, LA Confidential is, quite simply, a magnificent movie. On one level, it's as complicated and baffling as The Big Sleep, on another a perfectly-arced sweep of character into action.

It's one of the most intelligent thrillers ever made. It's populated with characters whose every action is illegal or, at the very best, immoral. It's got the best hanging-someone-out-of-a-window-to-make-them-talk scene you'll ever see. For all these reasons, and so many more, it's imperative that you see this film.

You won't have felt this way since Reservoir Dogs: the blazing delight which comes from the knowledge you're watching a truly classic film. Not just a "yeah, really good" film, nor a "wow, that was brilliant" film, but a genuine, certified classic. Beautifully constructed and fabulously acted, it's a nigh-on perfect interpretation of a remarkable book, as violent as it is intelligent, as moving as it is brutal. A must-see for any film fan.

The Total Film team are made up of the finest minds in all of film journalism. They are: Editor Jane Crowther, Deputy Editor Matt Maytum, Reviews Ed Matthew Leyland, News Editor Jordan Farley, and Online Editor Emily Murray. Expect exclusive news, reviews, features, and more from the team behind the smarter movie magazine.