The ’80s was a time for macho, bull-headed heroism. A simpler time, a time where Schwarzenegger and Stallone dominated movies. Movies that required the bare minimum of plot exposition or complex theming, they needed nothing more than to be comprehensible high-octane action. Which makes it all the more shocking that a movie like To Live and Die in L.A. even exists in such a bombastic decade for film.
William Friedkin is best known for his work on The Exorcist, but the box office failure of movies such as Cruising led him to go back to his French Connection roots. This all led to a film that manages to blend the ’80s style, tone and attitude while retaining the cynicism of Friedkin’s earlier work from the ’70s.
Richard Chance and his older partner Jimmy Hart work for the Secret Service on counterfeit investigations. When Jimmy goes solo – days away from retirement – to stake out a warehouse suspected of printing fake cash, he’s shot point blank in the head by Rick Masters, the man behind the counterfeit operation. A hot-headed, revenge-fuelled Chance is then teamed up with Vukovich, a somewhat naive and inexperienced cop assigned to go after Masters.
As the film commences, Chance continually risks life or death to get to Masters, crossing ethical boundaries regardless of who gets hurt. He’s convinced that he can do no wrong, even as Vukovich insists that they should follow the law. Ultimately Chance gets his way, and this is the part where Chance was right for his actions – sure, he went above the law, but he got the job done right…no.
In any other movie, Chance’s actions would be exonerated and he would beat Masters undefeated, but not here. This is where Friedkin’s direction shines, he isn’t about to let the characters off so lightly. There is a part where Chance and Vukovich need to acquire money to perform a transaction with Masters in an undercover sting. The police can’t give them the full amount, so they steal it. The consequences that arise from this plan end up firing all the way back on this duo.
As well as resulting in one of film’s most exciting car chases ever. The scale of the chase – particularly for its time and budget – must have been exhausting to plan out and execute, but it ends up being worthwhile, terrifying and thrilling the whole way. The cleverest thing is how Friedkin combined the ’80s aesthetic while keeping the movie grounded to make sure the characters are always hit hard. When characters die, they don’t just get shot – huge holes leave the branding of death for all to see. The way that Vukovich is affected and grows to deal with the many plot complications is superb character development.
This film features early appearances from many revered actors. From Willem Dafoe – who has gone on to appear in countless movies of every kind – delivering a deeply enigmatic and vicious Masters. William L. Petersen plays Chance, a walking action film stereotype when the film needs him to be, and oddly empathetic in little doses as he too is reconciling the morality of his actions with getting the job done. Many support actors like John Turturro and Dean Stockwell deliver their mini roles with verve and without being indulgent – they work every second of film they get.
Many shocks and surprises await those who haven’t seen To Live and Die in L.A., a crime film that’s unafraid to show a cruel, bloody depiction of revenge and policing.
Dir: William Friedkin
Scr: William Friedkin, Gerald Petievich
Cast: William Petersen, Willem Dafoe, John Pankow, Debra Feuer, John Turturro, Darlanne Fluegel, Dean Stockwell, Steve James, Robert Downey Sr., Michael Greene, Christopher Allport
Prd: Irving H. Levin
DOP: Robby Müller
Music: Wang Chung
Running Time: 116 mins
To Live and Die in L.A. is out on Blu-Ray now.