Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Underrated Eighties... To Live and Die in LA

William Petersen is an actor who has had something of an odd career. Despite playing the lead role in two thrillers by highly respected directors in the 1980s it wasn't until he was the ripe age of 47 that he finally got recognition for his work, on the TV show CSI. While a lot of people have critically reappraised one of those 80s thrillers – Michael Mann's Manhunter – the other one – William Friedkin's To Live and Die in LA – seems to still be somewhat overlooked. I'm not entirely sure why. Both films have very similar atmospheres. It perhaps helps a lot that Brett Ratner's sub-par Red Dragon, which adapted the same story as Manhunter, came along and vicariously made the earlier film seem infinitely superior. Who knows?

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 na├»ve 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.


  1. I saw this for the first time a couple months ago and was blindsided by the twist 3/4 into the movie. I need to watch it again soon. Great flick, top notch review!

  2. I love this film! I also agree it's severely underrated, much like Nighthawks is. To me, it exemplifies a perfect 80's cop action thriller all around; style, performances, score, visuals, the works. Great review, I'm glad someone else appreciates this as much as I do.

  3. Its a shame,this deserves much more attention.
    Any filmfan should have seen this, for sure.
    And yes, great review...I shall link you in my sidebar:)

  4. Yeah, I've seen Manhunter countless times but only caught this a week or so back. Love how the film's starts getting really murky towards the end. It stops being about just one man catching another and become about people retaining their humanity.

    Agreed, like Manhunter this is a perfect synthesis of style, story, visuals, score and action. Can't believe a lot of critics dismissed it on release. It should be far more famous than it currently is.

    Hey Hellford, welcome to the party. Will check out your blog soon.

  5. I remember watching this one a while back, enjoyed it a whole lot. Loved that chase sequence down the freeway, it rivals the chase sequence in The French Connection, but I still think the one in The French Connection is one of the best chase sequences ever filmed.

    Also, this film was probably heavily influenced by Miami Vice, a television show that ended up influencing a lot of filmmakers at the time. I do love how very 80's this movie is!

  6. Yeah, French Connection has the superior car chase but this one is pretty close. What I love about this one is Vukovich having a nervous breakdown in the back of car towards the end while Chance starts yelling and punching his fist in the air.

    I think on the surface the film looks like every other stylish 80s films but Friedkin keeps a lot of same downbeat atmosphere of 70s thrillers too.

  7. Action movies from this era were very bitter, I dont know what it is about them, but they all have this jadedness to them, same with Lethal Weapon for example. And 8 Million Ways to Die, films with bitter angry characters. I guess they capture a mentality and feeling that people were living through during those days. The fear of being blown away by nuclear weapons and all that...ahh, the eighties.

    Need to rewatch To Live and Die in L.A. I will try and review RONIN during the next couple of days. Another good one, with yet another excelent chase sequence! Friedkin was so good at filming them.

    Ever seen Friedkin's Sorcerer (1977)? That was an interesting one, it's a film about a group of guys carrying dynamite through the jungle, similar in some ways to Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, wrote a review for it a while back you might enjoy it!

  8. Yeah, need to check out Sorcerer soon. Love Roy Scheider as an actor so hopefully will like it.

    Ronin I watched a long time ago. Remember it being an okay film elevated by a superb car chase.