When the sadly departed Curtis Hanson began work on casting LA Confidential, the director screened Romper Stomper - the brutal Australian crime drama about two neo-Nazis - and came to the conclusion that Crowe fit the character of Bud White.
On the surface level, the two couldn't be more distinct from one another. Crowe's character in Romper Stomper is a violent psychopath who, at the very end of the film, tries to murder Jacqueline McKenzie's victimised drug addict, Gabrielle, by drowning her on a beach. The very first scene we see Russell Crowe in LA Confidential, LAPD officer Bud White is strangling a wife-beater with Christmas lights. They're both characters who live violent lives and are barely suppressing their rage; erupting when provoked and incapable of dealing with anything beyond binary reactions.
What made LA Confidential so unique as a film noir, according to Roger Ebert, was that it "dealt with psychology of the characters," and Bud White's psychology is made clear from that opening scene. As it later transpires in the film, his mother was brutally murdered in front of him by his abusive father. Again, it's that idea of binary action and reaction. White's father killed his mother, he now unilaterally destroys wife-beaters when he comes into contact with them. Even in the later jailhouse scene, White unleashes when one of the prisoners makes a reference to his mother. Yet, for all this, Crowe plays the character with incredible nuance and detail.
Crowe's character barely raises his voice throughout the film, except for one or two scenes, and instead uses his presence and physicality to impart on a scene. The interrogation scene, where Guy Pearce's Ed Exley inadvertently stumbles on a missing girl during the process of his interview, sets off White. In one fluid movement, he smashes into the room and - wordlessly - places his revolver into the mouth of the prisoner and starts pulling the trigger. Hanson places the camera just above the revolver and puts the focus on Crowe's eyes - and it's absolutely terrifying. There's not one frame in that scene where you don't think Crowe's character is going to blow the prisoner's brains out. Later on, after White silently murders the man keeping the young woman hostage, Exley confronts him about how he handled it and then insults his partner. Again, Crowe's performance is done with such force and with such little dialogue. He just charges right at Pearce, with a small army of extras holding him back from reaching him.
When compared to other roles that Crowe is known for - Maximus Decimus Meridus in Gladiator, John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, or even Jeffrey Weigand in The Insider - there's a lot more going on to the performance. In Gladiator, for example, it's all about the booming voice and the trailerspeak dialogue. With The Insider, Crowe physically transformed himself into a defeated, middle-aged executive with nothing left to lose. Yet, in LA Confidential, aside from the period details - which cinematographer Dante Spinotti specifically placed in the background of the film - there's little in the way of transformation for Crowe.
He has to play the character as it is, and isn't allowed to overact or blast out catchphrases or loglines. Even when compared to other actors in the film, such as Kevin Spacey's Jack Vincennes or Danny DeVito's Sid Hudgens, Crowe's character has only a few memorable lines but is as integral to the story as either one of them. It's quite possible that this was the reason why Crowe's performance was overlooked in the Oscars that year; as his performance was part of an ensemble rather than on its own.
Still, twenty years on, it remains - in our opinion - his finest role to date.