(Dir: William Friedkin, 1985)
William Friedkin has always interested me as a director, yet I’ve seen nowhere near as much of his work as I’d like. I’m a firm believer that The Exorcist is one of the greatest films ever made and obviously The French Connection is rightly justified as a defining cop thriller, but I have a hell of a lot of love for the oft overlooked To Live and Die In L.A.. It sits perfectly in the middle of the eighties with it’s Los Angeles setting representing the genre through this era in a similar way to how the dirty sleazy streets of New York seem synonymous with the seventies police thriller. Beverly Hills Cop had come a year earlier and Lethal Weapon and Die Hard were to follow over the next two / three, but To Live and Die In L.A. is a more stylish and less bombastic thriller.
The plot follows two secret service agents, Chance (William Peterson) and Vukovich (John Pankow) who are desperately trying to bust skilled counterfeiter Masters (Willem Dafoe). He has been evading them for quite some time but things have recently turned personal for Chance as his old partner and mentor (Michael Greene) died at the hands of Masters. At first glance the plot may sound a little clichéd now, but that’s just looking back with 27 years perspective.
Peterson is perfectly cast here. He has a youthful cockiness coming across through what seems like impetuousness, but there’s an extremely calculated drive to catch his man. It’s interesting to see Peterson like this – this was only his second acting role and as good as he also was in Manhunter, his career has become entirely synonymous with the character of Gil Grissom in CSI. There he plays the deeply intelligent and somewhat introverted head of the crime lab - the complete opposite to the bungee jumping, wild arrogance of Chance. Similarly Dafoe is really well cast and as this is one of his early roles too there’s also a youthfulness I’m not used to seeing. Of course he’s cocky and arrogant too, but unlike most antagonists in films of this ilk there’s a lot more too him. He’s a tortured artist with a strange reptilian charm who found a way to literally make money, and is the inherent vision of eighties chic in his sharp clothes, slick modern house, black Ferrari and bisexual modern interpretive dancer girlfriend. Yet he’s capable of violence. He’s an interesting character and aside from the violence this career choice forces him into, you have to question if he’s really that bad?
The rest of the film is bathed in the glow of the eighties too, including a great synth-led soundtrack. Looking back on it now, in many ways this seems to be one of the films that most inspired the look and feel of Drive. One of the reasons for which To Live and Die In L.A. is most well known is it’s car chase, taking place through the industrial area of the city, into the famous LA storm drains and ultimately ending up the wrong way down a busy four lane freeway. It’s thrilling, superbly shot and most importantly feels real. Friedkin’s experience of shooting the famous chase sequence in The French Connection paid off here. But the rest of the film is as expertly shot and put together and the LA we see here is frequently glowing in sunset, well before Simpson and Bruckheimer got into the habit of abusing this palette. But the story moves along at the right pace, managing to be breathtakingly surprising on at least one occasion and offering an interesting depth to the characterisation.
Aside from Masters this characterisation is best seen in the duality between Chance and Vukovich. One is driven to stop at nothing to do what needs to be done and the other is more righteous and has a deep conscious permeating throughout. Over the course of the film we see a slow metamorphosis, perhaps brought upon by what is in essence the brotherhood of working with a partner, but also the persuasiveness of someone continuously adamant that their methods are necessary. Ultimately this leads to the conflict of a visually metaphorical personal hell, where perhaps the only way to escape is to make the transformation? This isn’t so much about questioning what’s right or wrong, it’s about what it takes to push someone to move where this line lies, or even eliminate it altogether.
It’s this character depth that raises To Live and Die In L.A. far beyond that of a standard police procedural, but it also helps that everything else is delivered which such quality, testament of course to Friedkin’s directing and writing. And lest we forget the acting is spot on from Peterson, Dafoe and Pankow, as well as from smaller roles such as John Turturro and Dean Stockwell’s characters. There were a lot of great films in the eighties but To Live and Die In L.A. has always stood out to me as one of the best. Highly recommended.