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One of the very best films of the 1980s this was shamefully neglected and
misunderstood by the critics. The problem is: on the surface it's just like
an ordinary action crime thriller (and thus won't appeal to the arthouse
crowd), except that it makes it difficult to identify yourself with any of
the characters. In other words: it violates its genre rules. But this very
fact makes it so unpredictable and thrilling, and a proper movie as opposed
to a mere genre clone.
The good guys are flawed. This isn't really new, since the mid 1960s there were plenty of flawed heroes in Westerns or police thrillers. The difference is that not only their characters are flawed, they are vulnerable, destructible, they make mistakes. And they pay for their mistakes. Similarly the villains: yes, they are formidable and glamorous, but they are not in the league of the Blofelds or Sentenzas of moviedom. They make mistakes too. And they pay too.
A surprising asset is the film music by Wang Chung, a one-hit-wonder pop obscurity of the era. Their sound perfectly melts with the cinematography, especially in the stylish opening sequence.
When Friedkin went "back on the streets" in 1985 to make TO LIVE AND DIE IN
L.A., he made a classic that will endure and that perfectly captures its
I don't understand these idiots who complain how a film is "dated" by its music. Of course a film is "dated" by its specific elements, but so what. This superb film, which has an amazingly kinetic Wang Cheung score, is about a time (the mid-eighties) and place (L.A.) that is now history, and it is a punishing document.
The film works on many levels. Yes, it is about counterfeiting and superficial (re: counterfeit) relationships. It is about greed, survival, justice and morality. It is also about human beings using and laying to waste other human beings.
These powerful ingredients weave their way through a police procedural/action thriller plot that never stops to catch its breath and is pure cinema.
Willem Dafoe is totally engrossing as the film's villain, while William Peterson delivers a highly focused, tough turn. Dean Stockwell is also a stand-out as a crook lawyer and real cop Jack Hoar is quietly spectacular as Dafoe's mule.
And the film boasts one unbelievable car chase that has not been equaled since.
But LIVE AND DIE is also a film that expertly marries the visual to the aural and depicts a part of Southern California that has not been so credibly depicted before.
Another critic discussing this film accurately mentioned "being
ignored" as an injustice this 1985 William-Friedkin masterpiece suffered
upon its release. And it was not only the critics who failed to notice
worth. For some reason, the public stayed away in droves as well, this as
myself and my friend were practically organizing tours to the theater,
introducing people to the film who, weened on "48 Hours", "Miami Vice"
yet to experience the Abbott & Costello hijinks of the "Lethal Weapon"
series, had little concept of what a below-the-belt, impeccably crafted
movie could be. Or would turn into.
Those who've seen Friedkin's earlier genre entry "The French Connection" shouldn't be caught off guard by his often ruthless tactics here, as he's back in the familiar territory of cops and criminals. Nor should those who survived his muscular "Sorcerer"--another unsung hero of an action piece--be unprepared for the director's inability to hide the more challenging (and dreadful) sides of male conflict. Even the disturbing "Cruising", where no attempts were made by the film to explain its ugly corkscrew of a story, all the while summoning an atmosphere thick with dread, still suspenseful, but full of plot holes conveniently filled with leather jackets and the scariest Village-People-on-PCP-soundtrack to date, is just another Friedkin descent into Hell. The details always more than part of a whole.
It may show the surface of a genre flick, but beneath the pulsing Wang Chung soundtrack and 80s-reflective duds (no Members Only jackets appear, luckily) there is as lean and mean and taut a suspense thriller as even Don Siegel could deliver in his prime. And with an outstanding, hyper-realistic cast of then unknowns--including Chicago theater alumni William Pederson, pre-"CSI" and with even more cock to his walk, swaggering through his pursuit of a damaged counterfeiter, Willem Dafoe--the screws tighten with each and every action sequence, climaxing the building mayhem with a cathartic, freeway massacre of automotive chaos on the same scale as a "Mad Max" movie.
The characters ar caustic, the betrayals extremely violent, the music pounding, the ending, in particular, is a departure from the Gerald Petievich novel, the author, himself, a retired U.S. Treasury agent writing an even bleaker resolution to the problem of two unstable detectives at odds with each other, losing their sanity, and finding no comfort in their escalating criminal misbehavior. "To Live And Die In LA" marks a significant and welcome departure within such an oversaturated genre, the buddy cop movie. It refuses to soften its blows or coddle its audience, showing instead dangerous, volatile situations being taken serious. Brutally serious.
Nonetheless, for all its nihilistic tone, captured in parched images of a city populated by thugs, thieves, and sociopathic criminals, "To Live And Die In LA" is like a breath of fresh smog.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
David Mamet once explained the difference between art and
entertainment. Entertainment, he said, reinforces what you already
know, and tells you that you're right. Art, on the other hand, suggests
that what you know is wrong, and that your beliefs might not be
In "To Live and Die in L.A.", director William Friedkin inverts, twists, and eventually demolishes the standard "Cop seeks vengeance for his partner's murder (with 3 days til retirement!)" formula. The viewer learns that 1) not every law enforcement agent always has the public good in mind, 2) real people generally aren't either 'good' or 'evil' all the time, 3) if a cop (or in this case, Secret Service agent) takes the law into his own hands, he WILL pay for it one way or another, and 4) whether you're a cop or a criminal, things usually don't go according to plan.
This information is directly opposed to what we've learned from countless action movies of the 1980s. Watching the "Lethal Weapon" movies, or anything with Schwarznegger, Stallone or Seagal, suggests that it's fun and entertaining when cops take the law into their own hands. Notice that no matter how much damage Riggs & Murtaugh cause, they can laugh about it with the captain later, and the world is always a better place for it. And no matter how many people's civil rights are trampled, and no matter how illegal the cops' activities are, everything always works out in the end, and the only people who get hurt are the "bad" people.
"To Live and Die in L.A." shows what would happen if Riggs & Murtaugh tried their antics in the real world. While Martin Riggs' arrogant recklessness is heroic and hilarious, Richard Chance's arrogant recklessness ruins a lot of lives, not least his own. When it's over, justice has hardly been served, and even though the bad guys are dead, there's no hint that L.A. is a better place for it.
With all these "Lethal Weapon" comparisons, I should make it clear that "To Live and Die in L.A." came out in 1985, two years before the first LW movie.
All that stuff aside, this is one rock-solid movie. Willem Dafoe uses his character's eccentricities to create (for my money) one of the best villains in cinematic history, even if the movie doesn't see Rick Masters quite that way. William Peterson is incredible and brings a lot of depth to his performance; I'm not one to critique someone else's opinion, but I don't understand the users who complained that he's "wooden." Chance is an egomaniacal, scheming nutjob with a death wish; he really believes that he's above life and death, and it never crosses his mind that he might be wrong. Peterson brings this all out.
Dean Stockwell is in his element, playing a scumbag who knows everything about everyone. John Pankow was a wonderful surprise, bringing all sorts of conflicting and confused ideas to Vukovich, which is perfectly appropriate. When things really go wrong, he goes to pieces. Again, some users complained that he was overacting, but ask yourself how YOU'D behave. Nobody ever gives Darlanne Fleugel much credit, but she's terrific here. There's a whole lot going on in Ruth's head, and in many ways, she's the central character to this whole play. Pay attention. And I'd be remiss in my duties if I didn't point out Steve James and Jack Hoar as two of Masters' criminal associates. They're both tough, intimidating, and surprisingly multi-dimensional.
And I haven't even mentioned 1) the car chase to end all car chases, 2) the copious amount of nudity, 3) the perfect fit of Wang Chung's soundtrack with the day-glo L.A. look, even as all hell breaks loose and men confront the dark depths of their souls (huh?), and 4) a climactic shock that WILL knock you for a loop.
Worthy of the director of "French Connection," the pace of this set- in-LA action thriller immediately draws the view in and never lets up. A car chase in the best traditions of "Bullitt" and of Friedkin's own "French Connection" is centers the action, but the motivation of a rogue agent obsessed with the death of his partner, and clearly with his own death, are well- and credibly- drawn. The most sympathetic character in the story is not one of the principals. It is a female informer. An ex-con at the mercy of those on both sides of the law, she is callously exploited by all. Her feelings for Agent Chance are more implied than explicit, but they are believable as is his indifference to her as a person. This riveting film never lets your attention wander. Thanks to Friedkin, we are told, we are given a credible ending to this taut, tightly- wound thriller. An under-exposed, under-appreciated work; excellent for the genre.
In Los Angeles, the secret agent Richard Chance (William L. Petersen)
loses his partner and friend Jim Hart (Michael Greene) in an
investigation of counterfeit, two days before the retirement of Jim.
The agent John Vukovich (John Pankow) is assigned to work with Chance,
who is obsessed to capture Eric 'Rick' Masters (Willem Dafoe), the
criminal responsible for the death of Jim. Chance risks his partner and
his own career, trying to arrest Rick.
"To Live and Die in L.A" is an excellent non-stop action movie, having an excellent pacing and being a politically incorrect police story. All the characters are amoral, dirty and sordid, and it is impossible to feel sympathy for any of them. There are excellent scenes, such as the car chase in the streets of Los Angeles, or the surprising lethal shooting in the end of the story. The DVD shows a commercial alternative ending of the story, fortunately not accepted by the director William Friedkin. The unpredictable and credible end as it is makes the great difference of this outstanding movie. My vote is eight.
Title (Brazil): "Viver e Morrer em Los Angeles" ("To Live and Die in Los Angeles")
This story is very 80's, and is heavily influenced by the TV show Miami Vice. The style, clothes, music, and characters reflect that time period exactly. The direction of this film gives a slick feel; where its action, style, and seedy underside all blend in well. The story could be very predictable, but with its plots twists, and the theme that follows the saying be careful when you go hunting for monster not to become one yourself gives it originality. It has some mind blowing stunts that create tension, and if you watch the film Ronin you see where they got the car chase idea from. In all this film gives a feeling of being involved in events that go too fast, too dangerous, and too twisted. Its shows what happens to the heart when the individual becomes obsessed with what he seeks. Watch this one and love it.
There are 'Cop films'. 'Buddy' films and 'Partner' films. This one is definitely in the 'Partner' category. With the same kind of magic that Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider shared in Freidken's 'The French Connection'... I just picked up and watched 'To Live And Die In L.A.' on DVD and had my socks knocked off for the umpteenth time!... Those expecting a standard, cookie cutter 'Cops & Robbers' film should go elsewhere. Friedken pulled out all the stops on this one! Taking a small budget and a clutch of then No-Name actors. Planting them in the sections of L.A. no one ever sees. And allowed them free rein to improvise, romp and play. And then, create some of their best work!.. William Petersen plays Secret Service Agent Rick Chance. Who hunts Artists/Conterfeiter/Con, Eric Masters. Played with clever, evil glee by Willem Dafoe, with a passion just short of Psychosis... The segments showing Dafoe making 'Funny Money' are as detailed and astounding as the scenes of him violently tidying up loose ends!... Toss in great location shots. A few startling chases. And a 'conscience' for Petersen, played by John Pankow as John Vukovich. A three-piece, by-the-book agent. Who follows his partner through the Counterfiet World of assorted crime, mayhem, and dirty deals. Into Dante's Inferno. Only to fully evolve in the last fifteen minutes of the film. That must be seen to believe!...
Despite a confusing (or irrelevant?) opening segment, To Live and Die
in L.A. is an authentic and somewhat disturbing crime film. In fact,
some of the film is so harrowing and caustic it evokes almost
horror-like inspiration. As you might have heard by now, it involves
one of the finest car chase scenes ever put to film.
The film follows a couple of Secret Service agents for the National Treasury as they try to track down a counterfeiter. As the movie rolls on, it becomes clear that these agents are pretty shady in the way they gleam information and that the ties between crime and justice are actually quite close. I know, it sounds like an obvious plot, but the editing, pacing, characters and twists are all pretty unexpected or original. It is not nearly as cliché as it sounds.
The downsides to the movie could be some of the aesthetic choices: the neon colors are sweet (I think) but some of the soundtrack is just too grating. You REALLY feel like you're hopped up on speed after hearing the main theme for too long. It's done by Wang Chung, but I think Tangerine Dream would've created something much more provocative. Oh well. Also, I felt like one or two characters' stories were not really concluded properly. There was a minor hang-nail or two left at the end.
But all in all, this is a solid film. Very inspired, very dark, simultaneously exciting and depressing. Seriously, this movie is way more intensely real than anything Tarantino has tried to do. It may not actually be more violent per say, but the violence itself it much more effective and the social ties are far more believable. This junk is scary.
I saw To Live and Die in L.A. during its original theatrical release in the summer of 1985. I thought then it had the potential to eventually become regarded as one of the best cop films ever. Recently I watched it again on DVD. It absolutely holds up in every respect to its original verity and impact, and it undeniably should be regarded as one of the top ten movies of its genre, and in my opinion, one of the top two or three. What is so remarkable about William Friedkin's film is the uniformly excellent level of the performances of his cast. There is not a single portrayal on screen that is not, from first scene to last, dead on target. William Petersen as Richard Chance, an ambitious adrenaline-charged treasury agent who becomes totally obsessed with avenging his partner's murder and Willem Dafoe as Rick Masters, a fabulously wealthy yet sleazy and violent counterfeiter form the nucleus around which the film unfolds. Both actors are superb in their roles, but no less impressive is John Pankow as the new partner who approaches emotional meltdown as he gets drawn deeper and deeper into a web of illegality and violence stemming from Chance's single-minded pursuit of Masters. Also Dean Stockwell as a cynical mob lawyer in his glass tower office and John Turturro as a lowlife ex-con, each in their own way a lackey to Masters, deliver taut finely-etched portrayals that linger in the mind with their subtle impact, all the more remarkable for the relatively brief time they appear on screen. And the same can be said about Debra Feuer and Steve James in even briefer roles, Feuer as Masters' longtime girlfriend and James as a ghetto crime lord totally dependent on a constant supply of counterfeit twenty dollar bills from Masters. The richly detailed location shots within which the film's action flows, from Masters' BelAir mansion to the barrios of East Los Angeles, from Hollywood Boulevard performance art theaters to federal prison exercise yards is unflinchingly authentic, but never intrusive. And as a bonus to all this is a car chase that at least equals if not surpasses the one Friedkin directed in 1971's Best Picture Oscar winner, The French Connection.
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