To Live and Die in L.A.

Classic, overlooked forgery thriller that's as lethal today as it ever was. Skill...

Released in 1985, certified USA-R. Reviewed on 02 Dec 2003 by Craig Eastman
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The 80s. A time of bad fashion, bad music and cop movie clich?s. Mostly these factors would conspire to ruin a movie, but sometimes, just sometimes, they come together in a beautiful fusion of moody genius. To Live and Die in L.A. is that genius. William Friedkin directs in fine style the superficially hackneyed tale of Secret Service agent Richard Chance (William L. Petersen), an adrenaline-seeking Treasury officer whose partner and mentor is shot dead just shy of retirement whilst investigating artist-cum-counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe). Unsurprisingly, Chance swears revenge, and it's very much a case of so-far-so-done-to-death. It's here, however, that the familiarity ends and the gritty world of forged money, fake relationships and misplaced trust takes control.

If the 70s belonged to Friedkin's Popeye Doyle, then Richard Chance is his successor for a new decade. Bringing to the table a style he would develop further in Michael Mann's outstanding Manhunter a year later, Petersen plays Chance as arguably the most believable 'maverick cop' in cinema; all the balls of Harry Calahan with none of the cartoon posturing and coinable catchphrases. Rather than being the fascist bi-product of an intolerant society, Chance is a machine built for arresting scum who sleeps with his female informants and occupies himself by base jumping from bridges. Understandably aggrieved by his friend's early exit from proceedings, our anti-hero resolves to take Masters down any way he can, 'take down' more specifically meaning kill. He grudgingly takes on new partner John Vukovich (John Pankow), who somewhat reluctantly rides shotgun as events begin to spiral out of control.

If it all sounds like a chore then you're going to miss out on one of the finest thrillers committed to celluloid. In a film that revolves around counterfeiting, to take anything for granted would be a huge mistake. To Live and Die's beauty is in the seedy detail, the almost-painful retro styling and the absolute falsehood of everyone and everything. There's a sick, knowing irony coursing through it's veins that's a rare thing indeed for any mainstream American film, let alone something so formulaic in it's initial presentation. Everyone, from the cops to the robbers, is relying on a network of sham relationships for their very survival, and when those relationships start to fail it's intriguing to watch it all fall apart.

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Gerald Petievich's novel is efficiently and professionally stripped of fat by Friedkin who casts his expert eye over each of the players just enough to flesh them out satisfyingly whilst maintaining in them a distance from the audience that makes their impending downfall all the more satisfying. Petersen's Chance is a man so obviously on the road to Hell that he can't see the woods for the trees, and Friedkin's biggest masterstroke is to have him, not Vukovich, buy the farm in the final reel. He may be a hero of sorts, but he's as much a villain at heart as Masters. Speaking of whom, Dafoe is his usual consummate self as the bohemian Warhol-in-waiting who happens to have a nice sideline in fake fifties and cold-blooded murder.

With all the morally detached menace of a cat toying with a mouse he dances around the law, casually dispensing with it's agents as and when they threaten his operation. At the same time, however, he's as weak as the next man, placing all his trust and twisted, sexually-motivated love in a single woman who ultimately is in it for the money, just like everyone else. Similarly scummy are the likes of Dean Stockwell as bent lawyer Bob Grimes and John Turturro as Carl Cody, Masters' cash-carrying mule who provides all manner of trust issues for Chance. Their presence is invaluable in raising To Live and Die above the norm, as is that of pretty much all the supporting cast, painting as they do a rich, grimy background for our leading players to react against.

As for the director, To Live and Die is easily Friedkin's best work outside of The French Connection, showcasing a keen eye for character, a matter-of-fact approach to violence and reinforcing Connection's promise of the quality car chase. For those as yet uninitiated, the movie sports one of the finest road pursuits on record with Chance and Vukovich negating a busy freeway against the oncoming traffic, amongst other obstacles. Similarly, a plot twist later in the film involving the two agents mugging a cash-laden perp for the fifty thousand dollars he's carrying in order to fund a buy from Masters is an unbeaten example in putting one over on your audience and your leads.

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There are a thousand reasons why this film works so damn well but most of them you'll have to discover yourself. I could prattle on all day about the frequent, brilliant use of improv (lest we forget Petersen and many of his colleagues hail from the art of treading the boards), the superb photography, the soundtrack courtesy of Wang Chung (GTA Vice City fans; yes, it has Dancehall Days in it) or the propensity for a lot of people to get painfully shot, mostly in the face and frequently with a shotgun. Grown men tremble and almost pass out in fear, thoughtful criminals leave their lovers stocking-clad lesbian prostitutes as 'presents' and Petersen famously gets the whole crew thrown out of an airport after disobeying security and running along a conveyor railing. Brilliant.

To Live and Die in L.A. is very much a product of it's time; a fusion of Narc-esque gritty cop drama and Beverley Hills Cop car chase-fuelled entertainment. Chuck in the comedy value that comes as standard with haircuts of the period and frankly you can't go wrong. Despite the clich?d setup, this is one of those flicks that you just know is going to feel as fresh in another 18 years as it does now.

Disko has awarded this movie 5 out of 5 Fab Weasels

William Friedkin
Cast list:
William L. Petersen (Richard Chance)
Willem Dafoe (Rick Masters)
John Pankow (John Vukovich)
Debra Feuer (Bianca Torres)
John Turturro (Carl Cody)
Dean Stockwell (Bob Grimes)
Darlanne Fluegel (Ruth Lanier)