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From the moment it starts, William Friedkin’s “To Live And Die In L.A.” is absolutely, unmistakably a creature of the 1980s. That Wang Chung score is the first thing that anchors it as a Secret Service details drives the President down Santa Monica Blvd. toward the Beverly Hilton hotel. Once inside, we see agents checking out the building, and we hear the voice of Ronald Reagan delivering a speech offscreen. Then again, Reagan’s speech is one of his famous tax cut rally cries, a message that would seem current today, and when William Petersen faces down a potential Presidential assassin, the killer cries out “Death to America and Israel and all the enemies of Islam!”, something you could put in the mouth of any current movie bad guy and it would sound absolutely timely.
There’s not a subtle moment in the film, and the combination of a visual style that is supercharged, courtesy of the great cinematographer Robbie Mueller, and a script that is absolutely tin-eared in terms of character and dialogue, courtesy of Friedkin and Gerald Petievich, somehow add up to a movie that still carries a hypersleazy kick, even twenty-plus years after it was made. Petievich was a real-life Treasury agent, although one assumes he wasn’t a corrupt scumbag like lead character Richard Chance, played by Petersen in one of his earliest starring roles. There’s something hilarious about the notion that Friedkin only decided to make this movie when he was refused the rights to Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon, the book that became Michael Mann’s “Manhunter” starring William Petersen after Mann sued Friedkin unsuccessfully over the way “To Live And Die In L.A.” supposedly ripped off “Miami Vice.” I’m dizzy just writing that out. I can see how Mann might get butt-hurt about the style of Friedkin’s film, but that was the ’80s for you. Everything was neon and pop music and a certain sort of film stock, and “Vice” certainly helped define that, but it was not the only film to do so. Friedkin’s film owes as much to his own work of the ’70s as to anything else, and what “The French Connection” was to the drug trafficking business, “To Live And Die In L.A.” is to the counterfeit trade.
I’m not actually sure what that opening sequence has to do with the rest of the movie, since Chance and his partner Jimmy Hart (Michael Greene) are guys assigned to hunting down conterfeiters, not guys working a Presidential detail. Maybe that’s just for the one visit to Los Angeles, but it’s unclear in the film. Hart is actually a cop movie cliche in every way, although I’m not sure if the cliche was already in place at this point or if this is where it kickstarted. You’ll hear Hart say “I’m getting too old for this shit” after a rough moment. You’ll hear him discussing his retirement which is only three days away just before he heads out to investigate a tip, all by himself. And, yes, you’ll know exactly what’s coming when he gets there.
But what unfolds after Chance loses his partner is not a typical cops-and-robbers action film, even if it does feature one of the very best car chases of the ’80s. And that’s saying something in a decade that also included “Raiders Of The Lost Ark,” “The Blues Brothers,” and “The Road Warrior.” Chance is determined to get his hands on Rick Masters, played by Willem Dafoe with such oily charisma that he practically leaves a smear on the screen every time he appears. Masters is the best at what he does, and he views his counterfeit money as art. In an early sequence, we see him making his money, and Friedkin follows every detail of what he does. He did such a good job, using a real counterfeiter as a technical advisor, that the US Government actually asked him to omit several shots from the sequence.
The film starts somewhat dark, then takes a left turn into absolute darkness, and then somehow manages to get darker still. And most of that is because of the way Chance becomes absolutely obsessed with the idea of catching Masters, no matter what it takes. After Hart’s death, he is assigned a new partner, John Vukovich, played by John Pankow. Chance doesn’t just cross lines in his efforts to catch the guy… he obliterates the lines. He becomes worse than Masters in many ways, because Masters has a particular set of rules he follows, and a group of friends and confidants he trusts. With Chance, there are only people he uses, and Vukovich gets a real education at Chase’s hands.
There are so many touches in the film that impress and intrigue me. There’s a scene early on that introduces Masters’s girlfriend that involves a very surreal gender-switch mid-kiss, and I’d argue it adds nothing to the scene or to the film, but taken in the context of Friedkin’s whole career, it’s fascinating. I don’t think there’s ever been a director who works as hard to be macho but who has wrestled with sexual ambiguity and homosexuality so frequently. Whether it’s “The Boys In The Band” or “Cruising” or “Jade,” it’s frequently overt in his work, even when the film isn’t about that. And during the amazing car chase that is the film’s biggest set piece, there are two cuts that beautifully define these characters. Chance flashes to a memory of bungee jumping off a bridge, while Vukovich flashes on the bagman getting shot at the start of the sequence. Petersen is addicted to the chase, to the high of life on the edge, while Pankow’s character still has some moral compass that tells him how deeply, wildly off-course he truly is. Friedkin communicates all of that with just two quick cuts. Say what you will about Hurricane Billy, but when he was on his game, he was beautiful. I also love the punctuation mark at the end of the scene, once they’ve gotten away and they’ve parked the car and they both climb out on shaky legs, freaked out. Three dudes playing reggae on a boom box come strolling by in a sort of makeshift mini-parade, doing their own thing, totally uninterested in Petersen or Pankow. The film is filled with touches like that.
More than any other Friedkin film, this one feels loose, playful, which is weird since it’s jet-black at its heart. There’s a foot chase through an airport involving Chance and a paper mule played by John Turturro that ends with a laugh-out-loud line from an extra, a perfect example of the oddball sensibility of the film. When the film stops being playful in the last half-hour, though, things go so dark it’s like a horror movie. Even after seeing the movie six or seven times, I’m still taken aback at the choices Friedkin makes. Even if characters are technically alive at the end of the film, they don’t survive it. Everyone who touches this world ends up dirty. Everyone ends up bloody. In the world of William Friedkin, there is no good or bad… only shades of rotten.
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