To Live and Die in L.A. Review
Whatever happened to William Friedkin? One of Hollywood’s elite in the 1970’s, he has yet to better the almighty highs of The Exorcist, popping up on the radar here and there, but mostly with disappointment. Following projectile vomit and head spins, Friedkin was obviously feeling a twang of nostalgia for his crime dramas. His pre-Exorcist hit The French Connection, is still one of the best of its breed, mixing tension and action impeccably. After gaining widespread fame and notoriety for bringing William Peter Blatty’s book to the screen, Friedkin’s career took a nose-dive. He made the costly flops Sorcerer (1977), and the Al Pacino vehicle Cruising (1980), which didn’t help his reputation in Hollywood. While they didn’t attract audiences, it would be unfair to brand them as poor films. Sorcerer for instance, is deeply underrated, and holds more value than his latter-day efforts. Nestled between his 70’s heyday and his mediocre 90’s output, is the fondly remembered To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), a cheesy cops and robbers classic, that shows Friedkin at his most enjoyable.
These days, the film is most notable for featuring William Petersen, who has gone on to great success with CSI. After Manhunter, Petersen was a key figure in the crime genre, and he has the same likeable edge in To Live and Die in L.A. Here, Petersen stars as Richard Chance, a Secret Service operative, who is hot on the tail of counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe). After Masters kills his partner, Chance will stop at nothing to bring the crook down; even if it involves endangering his new accomplice John Vukovich (John Pankow). With revenge on his mind, Chance waves goodbye to the rulebook, and proceeds to tear around Los Angeles with his guns blazing. Naturally, his efforts lead to a blood-drenched outcome, where everyone is a target.
Now considered awfully clichéd, the plot is actually taken from the best-selling book by Gerald Petievich, a real-life Secret Service agent. He even shows up in the film in a similar guise. Clearly, it was Petievich’s attempt to bring realism and plausibility to this tale of cop vs. criminal, but Friedkin isn’t interested in the logistics of reality. He’s never been subtle, and the director turns the concept into an ultra-violent chase picture, that lashes on the tension and blood. With a ridiculously dated score by Wang Chung, To Live and Die brings new meaning to the term “guilty pleasure”.
But don’t think the film is lazy. Far from it. Despite the critical panning it originally received, many will be surprised at the cool-as-ice atmosphere Friedkin generates, while still retaining the gritty edge of The French Connection. The best way to describe the picture, is a combination of that movie and Miami Vice. Michael Mann even tried to sue Friedkin, due to the stylistic similarities with that famous TV show. And I can see what he was getting at - Friedkin often shoots sun-drenched streets, alleyways and shady hoodlums, with more than the odd image of day shifting into night. You’ve seen it all before, but there’s more to this film than imitation.
The story, while grudgingly familiar, is also gripping. Between shoot outs and interrogations, are many scenes that stick in the memory. One inparticular, is when Masters first creates thousands of dollar bills. It’s common knowledge now, but the crew really did this - when Dafoe goes through the process, he really is making illegal tender. (So risky was this, that whenever helicopters were heard over head, Dafoe believed it was the cops coming to arrest them). With ex-cons supervising the scenes, it must have been an edgy set to be on. They even shot at the San Luis Obispo Penitentiary, with genuine prisoners as extras. Such methods would be shot down today, although I applaud Friedkin’s balls. Few filmmakers would take such risks in the name of entertainment.
But none of this would matter, if the story wasn’t engaging. Thankfully, the cast and crew rise above the derivative script, and embrace the genre archetypes like old friends. Chance is a stereotypical character, yet Petersen’s performance is spot-on. He’s hard-edged throughout; an agent willing to break the very laws he is upholding. Friedkin even named cop and robber Richard and Rick respectively, to show the similarities between them. By placing them in the same emotional bracket, the director is free to take this battle of wits to dizzying heights. Which causes a problem - Chance is far from a sympathetic character. He doesn’t seem to care about his new partner or those around him, so why should the audience care? The films hook is all about the chase though, and there is always a sense that this tale won’t end happily. With people being shot left, right and centre, it’s clear that crime doesn’t pay.
By the last 20-minutes, the film does earn its classic status. It’s centrepiece is one of the most thrilling car chases ever captured on celluloid. Friedkin was already the master of this cinematic convention (Gene Hackman’s taut trip through Chicago is arguably the best ever), but the one in To Live and Die goes to new extremes. Years before films like The Fast and the Furious and The Matrix Reloaded aided their chases through CGI, Friedkin does everything the old fashioned way - real stunt performers doing a real chase. The authentic aura makes it one truly breathtaking scene. Petersen and Pankow are pursued by unknown foes, through L.A. traffic jams, one-way streets, railway tracks and even the city harbour. In one unforgettable moment, the cars speed alongside a roaring train, missing a head-on collision by inches. The tension is exaggerated by the believable way the actors behave. They aren’t thrilled to be in such a situation; Pankow inparticular, is scared to death, squirming his way through the 10-minute-plus scene. It has a pulse and life all its own, making the picture worth seeing for this sequence alone...
Pumped-up, and doused in testosterone, To Live and Die in L.A. probably won’t appeal to everyone. With that trashy 80’s style present, it is also hard to take seriously. Yet, Friedkin made a very entertaining film, and one of the more interesting twists on the age-old crime conventions. With a devilish performance from Dafoe, a pre-Grissom turn from Petersen, and that car chase staying vividly in the memory, it’s a cult classic worth seeking out.
MGM’s barebones release won’t impress anyone, with a lacklustre presentation and no bonus material (more on that later). Whatever the reason for this vanilla release, To Live and Die in L.A. deserves something better.
The Look and Sound
Considering this film is nearly 20 years old, the transfer looks pretty good, though it won’t take anyone’s breath away. Presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1), fans should be pleased at how clear the print looks. Damage to the elements hasn’t been a problem - only grain and a soft hue on the image remain. My only beef is that it could have been sharper. To Live and Die needs a remastering job to bring out the colour, and a higher level of clarity. But the transfer doesn’t disappoint. This is the best I’ve seen the film, easily beating the frequent television broadcasts. Not perfect by any means, but a step in the right direction.
Surprisingly, we get a Dolby Digital 5.1 track. It’s a fair mix. Hardly reference-quality, but good all the same. It’s active when it needs to be - the shoot outs and the car chase sound great. Yet, it can be flat elsewhere. Dialogue and quieter scenes aren’t given any oomph; relegating speech to the front channels. And since Wang Chung’s music is dire, you’ll be glad that the score isn’t given deep bass. It won’t make mince meat of your set-up, but it’ll get the job done.
These are very simple. There’s no animation - just static menus that were put together rather sloppily. Poor.
Just what in the hell are MGM playing at? Their Region 1 disc is a full-blown “Special Edition”, with Friedkin commentary and featurette. What do we get? Nothing. Not even the theatrical trailer. Since they own the materials, surely they could have ported over the disc, and given it an R2 makeover? This is simply unforgivable.
Fans of the film are advised to purchase the superior R1 release, but if you’re a newbie, To Live and Die in L.A. is ripe for a rental. It’s a good film, presented in acceptable fashion, but MGM aren’t doing themselves any favours this side of the pond.