By J.D. Lafrance
By 1985, William Friedkin had effectively burned all of his bridges in Hollywood with a succession of underperformers that included Sorcerer (1977), Cruising (1980), and Deal of the Century (1983). With nothing left to lose, he returned back to the kind of film that made his reputation: a gritty, police procedural like The French Connection (1974). He made To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), the west coast answer to The French Connection and a slick, stylish nihilistic thriller that immersed itself in the world of counterfeiting. Made at the same time as Miami Vice was becoming a cultural phenomenon on television, Friedkin’s film is the best Michael Mann film not made by Mann. Like his films, To Live and Die in L.A. is obsessed with the lives and careers of elite cops and criminals. It takes a fascinating look at the minutia of how the cops go about catching crooks and how the crooks ply their trade with both sides employing ruthless methods.
Audiences in 1985 weren’t ready for Friedkin’s world of unsympathetic protagonists and even nastier antagonists. When it was released in theaters, the film failed to connect with a mainstream audience that was repulsed by its amoral, unlikable characters and downbeat, nihilistic ending. What did people expect from the same man who brought them the equally uncompromising The French Connection? Despite equally uncompromising films like King of New York (1990) and television shows like The Shield, To Live and Die in L.A. is still something of a freakish anomaly, one that its director has yet to equal.
Right from the get-go and in very Mann-like fashion, Friedkin introduces the film’s protagonist and antagonist at work. Richard Chance (William Petersen) is a Secret Service agent that, along with his partner Jimmy Hart (Michael Greene), stops a terrorist from blowing up the President of the United States. Chance is the proverbial thrill-seeking cowboy, an adrenaline junky that gets his kicks in his spare time base-jumping off bridges. Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe) is a master counterfeiter, the Da Vinci of funny money and we see him go through the various steps of how he plies his trade in an engrossing montage. And when he’s not doing that, Masters creates abstract paintings and then burns them up afterwards.
Initially, the film hits you up with some of the oldest clichés in the book: the loose cannon cop and his older partner only days away from retirement (he even says at one point, “I’m getting too old for this shit.”). You think, oh man, this is going to be one of those films but then after Chance’s partner is killed by Masters, he’s assigned a new partner by the name of John Vukovich (John Pankow). Right from the start Chance lays down the ground rules: “I’m gonna bag Masters and I don’t give a shit how I’m going to do it.” All bets are off and Friedkin never looks back as he proceeds to turn all of the genre conventions on their head or present them in such a dynamic and exciting way that you don’t mind.
In some respects, To Live and Die in L.A. is the photo negative of The French Connection. While the latter is set during the cold wintery months in New York City, the former takes place in the sun-burnt streets of Los Angeles. With each film, Friedkin expertly captures the unique geography of both cities. Where New York is all vertical buildings and has a closed-in feel, L.A. is all open spaces and horizontal landscapes. He wastes no time immersing us in the sights and sounds of the cities with an uber montage of locales, accompanied by the very Hollywood New Wave sounds of Wang Chung. It’s like Friedkin made a list of every establishing shot used in L.A. films and then proceeded to avoid repeating them at all costs while still presenting an effective view of the city so that you feel it.
Like with The French Connection, Friedkin punctuates To Live and Die in L.A. with the occasional chase sequence but unlike a lot of action films they are integral to and drive the plot forward. For example, early on Chance chases one of Masters’ flunkies (a wonderfully slimy John Turturro) through a busy airport and this provides our heroes with their first lead on the counterfeiter’s operation. I was struck by this sequence and another foot chase (featuring Gary Cole, briefly) at how in these scenes the actors are really hoofin’ it. There’s none of this Hollywood bullshit where you see actors half-heartedly running. William Petersen is flat out running his ass off in these scenes, which is not just impressive to see but adds to the film’s authenticity.
Not content with having created one of the best car chase sequences ever committed to film in The French Connection, Friedkin orchestrates To Live and Die in L.A.’s show-stopping chase sequence where Chance and Vukovich are pursued by a slew of gunmen in cars. It starts off dangerous and exciting and quickly shifts gears into a hellish, white-knuckled intense ride that truly has to be seen to be believed. Friedkin actually manages to top what he did in The French Connection by upping the scale (i.e. the number of cars, duration, etc.). The thing you notice right away is that no music plays over this sequence, just the sound of the engines of the cars and the protagonists freaking out. If you haven’t thought that Chance is certifiably batshit crazy by now then this scene will do it. Friedkin inserts reaction shots of a determined-looking Chance and a sweaty Vukovich on the verge of losing his mind – it is these shots that help make this sequence so tense and exciting because we can clearly see how what is happening is affecting these guys. Even though it defies any kind of rational logic, it is still one hell of an action set piece with the cars as characters, chewing up the scenery.
Done early in his career (he had a cameo in Mann’s Thief previously), William Petersen is not afraid to play an unlikable character. When we first meet Chance he’s a semi-respectable risk-taker but as the film progresses it becomes readily apparent that he doesn’t care about anyone and anything else except nailing Masters and avenging the death of his partner. He has a female informant (Darlanne Fluegel) that gives him tips and has sex with on a semi-regular basis. Her only value to him is for information and sex. He has outright contempt for authority and treats his partner like crap. Petersen fully commits to the character and brings an intensity that would also be evident in his next film, Manhunter (1986). In some respects, Chance is actually worse than Masters. At least, he has his own code that he adheres to, while Chance will do anything no matter how illegal to achieve his goal. There is a kamikaze-like air to Chance, like he has some kind of suicidal death wish. He pushes himself and those around him to the limit. Even though his personal life is staring him in his face it’s still irrelevant. He wants to exist on a different plane of existence than everyone else. His personal life is just a distraction to him.
Fresh from his bad guy role in Streets of Fire (1984), Willem Dafoe plays a different kind of sociopath in To Live and Die in L.A. Masters shows little to no emotion and Dafoe gives him a whiff of pretension, like he knowingly thinks of himself as some kind of artist but really he’s a sadistic crook who’s all about making money both real and fake. Dafoe brings the right amount of cold detachment to his character. Masters is an efficient criminal who perfectly internalizes his emotions making him incredibly hard to read — ideal for his chosen profession. The irony is that he is ultimately consumed by obsessions – literally and figuratively.
After a lull in his filmmaking career, Friedkin came back with a vengeance with To Live and Die in L.A. He created an intense, harder-edged and visceral crime thriller that is of its time and out of time. The style and music are pure 1980s but the nihilism is reminiscent of the 1970s. Sure, the screenplay is riddled with clichés — the loose cannon agent and the partner who is killed only days before he retires — but Friedkin makes it all seem fresh and exciting because he believes in the material completely and goes for it all the way down the line. To Live and Die in L.A. was William Friedkin’s last great film. He has shown the occasional glimmer of brilliance (most notably with The Hunted) but has failed to deliver anything on the level of his 1985 film. However, his influence can be felt in films, like Narc (2003), which present a gritty world filled with morally questionable characters.