"Convoluted" doesn't quite describe all that unravels, unfolds, unwinds and untangles during two hours in Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia, which he adapted from James Ellroy's fictional riff on the grisly unsolved murder of a 1940s would-be Hollywood starlet. And so what: This is De Palma's most enjoyable movie in years. Sure, it's neo-noir navel-gazing for film buffs, and yes, toward the end it spirals into De Palma-esque Grand Guignol. But for four or five good reels, De Palma tells his tale with hardly a wink, and his actors play along.
Our heroes (for the time being) are a pair of L.A. cops and amateur pugilists known to their pals and to fight fans as Fire and Ice: the kinetic Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), and the brooding Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett). Outside the ring, it's strictly dull cop stuff for the guys ... petty crimes, petty criminals ... until they catch a big one: Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner), an effervescent 24-year-old sleeping and porning her way to nowhere in show biz, turns up ... well, dead would be an understatement. They find her body in parts, her blood drained, her organs removed.
In the course of uncovering who did what, taciturn Bucky hooks up with hoity-toity Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank, finally playing a role that befits her name), who slums at a ra-sha-sha dyke bar where gals make out and k.d. lang sings, and who knew Betty Short before her piecemeal demise. Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson), a sort of femme natale, lives with Lee, who rescued her from the low life. Kay and her two boy cops form a tight little circle of friends ... call it Jules and Jim meets Day of the Locust ... until it all falls down.
De Palma whips this up into a smart little reflection on the essential trope of Hollywoodland: Everyone lies about everything. So for the detectives, catching a murderer is a matter of discerning who lied about what. De Palma pours the action into lush period sets and films it all briskly, like a '40s thriller, in a potpourri of integrated styles, with a few striking moments of deep focus, and an artificially brilliant California sun. It's just a moderate shame that he over-indulges his climax with a fury that befits his films of the '80s.
Some juicy acting is part of the movie appeal. Fiona Shaw makes a wonderful maniac, but in another movie, not this one. Eckhart, as always, oozes disquieting charm. Swank is terribly good, a sort of boney Kathleen Turner in her Body Heat days. Johansson is certainly pretty, but she's a mannered actress to begin with: Her saving grace is her grace, and dolling her up doesn't help. That leaves Hartnett, an excellent idea for a young leading man who once again seems to be more concept than execution. He's just too bland in every way, even for an iceman, and watching him play opposite a gallery of superb character actors only accentuates his tedium.