To Live and Die in L.A. – Review

11 Oct

I’ve talked about William Friedkin before on this blog, and I’m sure I’ll be doing it again in the not too distant future. He’s a brilliant film maker who has very rarely allowed his vision to be compromised, so even if his movies aren’t always gems, you have to respect the guy. I mean he did The Exorcist and The French Connection for heaven’s sake. One of his movies that doesn’t get nearly enough attention that it deserves is his 1985 neo-noir thriller To Live and Die in L.A. While the film has gotten a cult following over the years, it’s not one that I hear discussed too much. I’ve just recently watched it and at first, I didn’t really know what to make of it, but then when it was over I really stopped and thought about the movie as a whole, and I gotta say that it’s one of his stronger films. It may not be quite on the level of The Exorcist and The French Connection, but like those movies, it defies Hollywood norms and turns the concept of a clean narrative completely on its head.

Richard Chance (William Petersen) and Jimmy Hart (Michael Greene) are two secret service agents who are tracking down notorious counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe), whose fake bills can never seem to be contained. After a routine check of what is believed to be Masters’ printing lab, Hart is shot and killed by Masters and his bodyguard. This fills Chance with an overwhelming need for vengeance, a need that he makes explicit to his new partner, John Vukovich (John Pankow). As the investigation turns up new leads and the two earn Masters’ trust as two potential buyers of fake bills, more problems arise with the legality of their actions. Vukovich sees the danger in how deep they are getting, but Chance is so blinded by his hate for Masters that they may both fall down a criminal abyss and never find their ways out.

At its surface, this sounds like a pretty standard revenge thriller, and for most of the movie that’s how I saw it. I want to get my initial reactions out of the way first, because a lot of my complaints about the movie are still valid. For one thing, this film has a very strange way of editing that can either be seen as way too stylistic or just plain sloppy. Scenes end before it seems they should and we are transported to another time and place entirely. It’s hard to keep track of how much time has passed between these cuts and where we have just jumped to. It was also kind of hard to take Petersen’s performance seriously at some points. He’s supposed to be a hard boiled anti-hero, which does come across well at times, but other times it’s a bit too much and resulted in some unwanted laughter at his overly dramatic performance. Finally, for a while, the story seemed so plain and generic that I had a hard time getting into it. A serviceman who is consumed by revenge goes against authority to get what he wants. It’s your everyday “play by my own rules” scenario. Luckily, To Live and Die in L.A. offers a lot more than your standard revenge film, and that’s where this movie really stands out.

This is a movie that has to be seen in full to really appreciate everything it has to offer. It got to a point pretty late in the film where it kicked into high gear and made everything before it come into focus. Chance’s character is one of the tragic anti-heroes of film and the subtle manipulations he made throughout the movie may not hit you immediately, but it soon hits you like a brick. He manipulates his partner who get pushed further and further to the edge throughout the movie. He also manipulates a woman named Ruth, played by Darlanne Fluegel, a parolee who he extorts through his power as an officer of the law and through sex. It’s an odd relationship that fits in very well with the off putting nature of the movie. Along with the manipulation, which begs the question of just how evil Chance is compared to Masters, is deception all across the board that is revealed in the last scenes of the movie. This turns a standard revenge plot into a slow game of deceptive progression that heats up and finally explodes in the last act of the movie. This narrative progress is one that has be seen in full and made me appreciate the movie so much more.

Many people have linked this film to The French Connection because of the plot and the themes of crime and corruption. I definitely see it and I also see a link with the hopelessness that both films feature. The way this film is shot is classic Friedkin, with the dramatic scenes in close up, the fights almost uncinematic, and actions set pieces that are, on the flip side, very cinematic. Highlights of the movie include a brawl in a living room, a fantastic car chase that ends on the wrong side of the freeway, and a scene in a locker room that will make you feel like an anvil just fell on you. The cinematography by Robby Müller is excellent and really brings out the noir sensibilities this film clearly has. I know I keep saying this, but all of these elements are what save this movie from being generic and raises it to a movie that I haven’t really stopped thinking about since I’ve seen it.

To Live and Die in L.A. is a very well made movie that isn’t without its flaws. Some of the editing really didn’t work for me and Petersen’s performance was sometimes a bit too over the top for the realistic vibe that Friedkin was obviously going for. It’s still a very memorable, gritty, and ultimately tragic modern noir tale that takes viewers deep into the grimy underworld of criminal Los Angeles. It’s not Friedkin’s best work, but it’s a movie that deserves a lot more credit than it’s given. I definitely give this movie a recommendation. Give it a watch.

Final Grade: B+

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