Anyway, To Live and Die in LA sees Petersen play Richard Chance, a US Secret Service agent on the trail of money counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe). When Chance's “three days from retirement” partner gets killed by Masters while on a solo stakeout in the desert, it pushes the already very intense Chance over the edge. He gets assigned a new young fresh-faced partner John Vukovich (John Pankow) and the two set out to catch Masters by impersonating a couple of shady characters that are interested in buying some of his phony money. The question is, how far will they both go to catch him?
What I love about To Live and Die in LA is that though everything is played on a huge canvas but it's really only about a handful of characters. Similar to The French Connection, it's about two people on opposite sides of the law who are the best at what they do. On the one hand you have Chance, a completely incorruptible, determined secret service agent, while on the other hand you have Masters, a completely dedicated, psychotic counterfeiter. It doesn't feel like a chase so much as battle of the wits between these two. At a certain point late in the film, both characters drop their guard which ends up being their downfall.
Another thing that's great about To Live and Die in LA is that it shows law enforcement officers as realistic people making good and bad decisions. So many other 80s action films had these invincible super-cops who go outside the law to catch a criminal but never get in any trouble for it. I'm not saying I don't enjoy those flicks, I do, but I appreciate the occasional attempt at realism. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of the TV show The Shield, which I just got finished watching recently, where the central character did both good and horrible things, sometimes in the same episode, making it uncertain whether to cheer him or condemn him.
The acting in the film is all top notch all across the board. Petersen is one of those actors who is just perfect at playing law enforcement officers. His acting style has a real intensity which perfectly suits the character. So much of the film is based around the visuals rather the dialogue so he acts a lot with his face and body. In fact, if you watch this film there is one scene where you get to see a LOT of Petersen's body but it's not gratuitous. Chance is a desperate character pretending to have everything under control and Petersen really sells it. Dafoe also completely owns his role as Masters. His offbeat-looking face and heavily-mannered voice make him just perfect at playing villains.
Pankow is pretty good as John Vukovich. His slightly naïve viewpoint really just acts as a surrogate for the audience to identify with. I like that the film didn't feel the need to make Chance and Vukovich best friends or have some tedious section where they learn to work with each other and have “banter”. They work together well from the off, they're professionals, that's it.
One of the major points of the film is the ending. It's a real kick in the face, but given the way the story works towards it, it's the only possible outcome*. In a lot of ways it makes the ending quite moralistic and conservative but I'm okay with that, because it's still quite a leftfield decision and keeps the audience on their toes. The entire soundtrack and score is composed by New Wave British band Wang Chung - whose biggest hit was 'Dance Hall Days'. It's a bold decision and the synthesizer-heavy songs do date the film a lot but I can't really imagine the film without them.
Friedkin's directing style in this got a lot of comparisons with the TV show Miami Vice. Having watched a lot of Vice I can see the similarities. It's very colourful and stylishly edited, at times playing out more like music video than a film. There's some great sequences: a fantastically colourful montage sequence of Masters making the phoney money and a very ambitious crane shot where we see Masters leave his hideout while Chance's old partner breaks in.
Much like The French Connection played out in New York at ground level away from the tourist spots, so too this plays out in the rough back streets of LA. Like a lot of 80s films, there's a very slick feel to everything. There's some great shots of the sun rising over LA casting a hellish orange glow in the sky. Friedkin wants you to know that Chance isn't just up against one man. He's up against a whole hellish city that runs on money. Also being this is very much a spiritual companion to Friedkin's earlier cop film there's another extended virtuoso car chase sequence that ups the ante with Chance being chased along the motorway while driving in the wrong lane.
If I had to pick out any bad points, it's the opening scene with Petersen taking down a terrorist bomber. I'm not sure if it's the sloppy editing or just the fact it feels like it's from a completely different film that makes me feel it should have been cut completely. Considering it's the start of the film, it's a little bit of stumble but it quickly recovers.
Anyway, To Live and Die in LA is a fantastic slice of 80s thriller action that comes highly recommended. Anyone who enjoyed watching CSI, where Petersen was on 50% power should see him in this at 100%.
* Okay, so it's not the only possible outcome. If you can get your hands on the Special Edition DVD check out the alternate ending that the studio almost insisted on using. I can see where it was going but really it would have made a far weaker film.