To Live and Die in L.A. Reviews
The premise is simply Richard Chance's (William L. Peterson) relentless pursuit of a murderous counterfeiter named Eric Masters (Willem Dafoe) who has killed Chance's partner and 'best friend for seven years'. Chance, his safety hindered in the haze of his own hubris, is prepared to do whatever it takes to put an end to masters, even if it means breaking the law he enforces. Peterson's anti-hero isn't without his clichés: when presented with new partner John Vukovich (John Pankow), the film indulges in the common 'You know I work alone' cliché.
In its entirety, To Live and Die in L.A. is a superficial, viewer-unfriendly production that just doesn't engage it's audience; the characters are flat and the plot is bloated and hard to follow. Its aesthetic redeeming features are seldom found over the course of 1hr 56 minutes, and even if there were more, it wouldn't save this film from its unsubstantiated characters and narrative.
The story is a bit messy and the film is steeped in the 80's aesthetic which unfortunately does not age well. However, it is much better than you would expect of your average thriller.
There are three things going for this crime thriller: it's a great in the sense of being a believable and well-constructed story; for the time, it has ordinary and not top box-office stars, a cast that produce star quality performances; and, of course, it's directed by William Friedkin, a director well known for constructing cinema designed to shock.
The narrative which I understand only barely resembles the story line of the novel is a piece of nasty work in the form of the moral ambiguity that constantly arises when 'good' guys exceed their authority to do whatever it takes to bag the 'bad' guys. Friedkin had already explored that in The French Connection (1971) but, at that time, he used a big star draw card with Gene Hackman, who, as Popeye Doyle, trod on a lot of toes and faces to do the job and still managed to garner sympathy from this viewer, and many others, despite his excesses.
That is not the case for Richard Chance (William Petersen), the T-man who'll do anything to get Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe) for murdering another T-man, Jim Hart (Michael Greene), Chance's partner in crime, so to speak. You see (literally and visually) the trouble with Chance, is that he always wants to take a chance on bridging the gap between doing what's right and proper, and doing what he wants to get the job done; ethically, he's a true pragmatist totally vacuous when it comes to core principles. And that's in direct contrast to Rick Masters, who's loyal to all those around him, until they double-cross him; only then do those real 'bad' guys pay the price for their double trouble.
From the narrative perspective, Chance and Masters are mirror images, of course, and each shares the same first name (although, for Masters, Rick is a nick-name), thus providing a duality of principle and purpose in the totally corrupt society as presented by Freidkin; and all of which is summed up with Bob Grimes' (an urbane and consummate Dean Stockwell) pithy rebuttal to Bianca (Debra Feuer) when she asked him why he was lawyer for Masters: "It's just business". Note the great grimy name for Stockwell's totally debased character...
So, the great irony for this story is that Chance works within the law as a T-man, but operates as much as he can outside of it to further his personal interests; while Masters works outside of the law as an anti-T-man (he counterfeits money), while operating within it as much as he can using corrupt lawyers and the legal system to further his own interests. So, who is the real bad guy? Who deserves more sympathy from society?
The ending is fitting, as it should be: out with the old, in with the new. Society continues to function, in all its grime and glory, such as it is; but it is also Friedkin's Disconnection on a grand scale for telling the truth about how it all works. Little wonder: most people can't handle the truth, as somebody said, because there's a little bit of Chance and Masters in all of us. And, we all know what happened to Friedkin's career as a director after this one was released.
There are, however, few thrillers, in the last twenty-five years, better than this one for irony, suspense and action. Add to that the sexually pulsating sound track from Wang Chung and the on-site location shooting around Los Angeles and you have a very believable story in a city where angels always fear to tread.
Is it just co-incidental that many of the actors went on to greater recognition. For William Petersen, this was his second movie; for Willem Dafoe, it was his sixth; for John Pankow, his third; Turturro, his fifth and so on.
See it for sure, if you haven't already; see it again for what you missed first time around. Highly recommended
One of the best cop movies of all time
Carl Cody: Like every other swinging dick in this place makes it. Day by motherfucking day.
Director William Friedkin follows up the French Connection with another kick ass crime thriller that features another one of the best kick ass car chases. Propelled by an 80s techno soundtrack from Wang Chung (not kidding), this movie gives us a good story involving Secret Service agents and counterfeiters. Between directors Friedkin and Mann, you can always count on an involving cop drama.
I was also deeply impressed by the pure complexity of To Live and Die in L.A. At the beginning of the famous car chase scene, there's this shot that rises from Chance's car, up along the highway, meets up with the red car in pursuit of Chance, then moves back to Chance's car. And all of this is going on while the cars are going at top speeds.
Maybe I'm just biased towards crime films. Crime is a genre that typically impresses me. The characters are always easy to get involved with, the storyline is typically riveting, and all of the technical aspects are usually right on par with everything else.
William Friedkin is a director that has mastered this genre, and I've only seen two of his films. I think I might add him to my "Favorite Directors" list.
Who could deny William Peterson AND Willem Dafoe. Plus and incredible car chase sequence that you can feel coming on and really effing delivers the goods.