To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)
I don’t know what it is about William Friedkin’s movies that I keep missing what everyone else sees in them. I do keep meaning to watch The French Connection, but for the few films of his I have seen, they have eventually fallen short of expectations. I’ve heard a few people call To Live and Die in L.A. a great movie. One even called it a masterpiece. I have to strongly, heavily disagree with that. This is the second time I’ve seen the movie, and my opinion of it hasn’t changed. Friedkin seemed to be trying to channel a Miami Vice vibe with this movie, but the quality of this would be a rather mediocre episode of that largely excellent series. I will surely give credit that there is good content here and a solid lead performance by William Petersen, but the film left a lot to be desired, especially with its finale.
Federal Secret Service Agent Richard Chance (William Petersen) has a score to settle, and he’s through playing by the rules. Whether that means blackmailing a beautiful parolee, disobeying direct orders, or hurtling the wrong way down a crowded freeway, he vows to take down murderous counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe) by any means necessary. Saddled with a very by-the-book partner in Agent Vukovich (John Pankow), Chance struggles to catch Masters in the act with a risky undercover operation, but as the stakes grow higher, will Chance’s obsession with vengeance ultimately destroy him?
The film’s first major scene has Chance and his longtime partner, Jim Hart, thwart a suicide bomber at a hotel where the President of the United States is giving a speech. This scene is effective in establishing our characters, but surely comes off a little cheesy. It’s slightly reflective of the whole movie. It has good ideas and good talent in it, but never really hits the style and tone just right. Something like this opening scene was done with better results in two scenes from the director’s cut of Lethal Weapon – the sniper incident at the school and the suicide jumper, both of which involving Martin Riggs in a tense, potentially fatal situation. This suicide bomber scene lacks tension and weight to make it feel like a really solid, taut opening scene. It’s far from a bad scene, but it lacked that certain realistic weight to make it feel like anything but a throwaway moment. I did gain a measure of enjoyment from this movie up until the climax, but overall, I do feel that it lacked a hard hitting emotional quality to make the characters and events truly resonate.
I don’t know if this film started the cliché of the cop getting killed two days before retirement, but in retrospect, it seems extremely clichéd. Chance’s partner, portrayed by Michael Greene, goes out to investigate a lead on Masters alone, and gets gunned down while doing so. It does seem stupid that he’d go at it alone because it comes off like a cheap plot convenience. The only hypothesis I could offer is that perhaps he was possibly trying to avoid more of Chance’s dangerous habits, but even still, rarely does a federal agent work a case alone, let alone go poke around the possible hideout of a known violent criminal without back-up. This isn’t the smartest or most creative script, but for a standard action thriller, it is decent enough. Of course, I don’t think that’s the film William Friedkin believed he was making, but I digress, for now.
William Petersen is really what makes the movie particularly good or entertaining. He brings charisma to Richard Chance that has him command scenes, and easily gravitates an audience towards him. He fits the role wonderfully injecting strong doses of excitement and danger into him. You get that edgy, risk taker quality coming out in how Petersen works certain scenes. He’s a tough federal agent both physically and personality wise. When dealing with Ruth, he might use her for sex, but he’s not warm with her. She’s a tool to be used, and he won’t hesitate to have her parole revoked if she doesn’t cooperate. He’s also a man of action that takes matters firmly into his own hands, and runs with them regardless of risk or consequence. He pushes hard for what he believes in, even if it’s a vendetta against Masters. In Petersen’s hands, Richard Chance is a strong, fascinating character that has energy, conviction, and danger engrained into him. It’s a solid, well-rounded performance that enhances what was on the page, and gives it further dimension. There’s nothing I don’t like about this character or performance. It’s excellent.
There are good performances here from the rest of the cast, but the problem is that there is no insight into who they are. We know the surface level stuff, but there’s no perception into the depth of these characters. Willem Dafoe puts in some good work as Rick Masters with a few scenes of solid weight and villainous charisma. There is some attempt at delving into the psychology of the character with him being an artist, and more so, him burning his own paintings. However, the film is too preoccupied with the procedural crime elements to take the time to expand on those ideas to where they have any relevance. I know that Willem Dafoe is capable of such awesome, high quality performances that this one looks very mild by comparison. John Pankow plays his part without flaw, but also without showing anything worth noting. It’s a standard, flat character who has little to offer until the final twenty minutes of the film where he becomes a guilt ridden mess. Everyone does do a good job with the material given, but the material doesn’t have much substance for them to sink their talent into.
I will certainly give credit to that the film is well shot. It’s not stunning, but it is shot competently in all aspects. The occasional use of neon or vibrant color washes is effective and shows a dash of visual style. Aside from one five second shot of some of the worst shaky cam I’ve ever seen, the action is also committed to film solidly. Now, To Live And Die in L.A. does feature an odd style in terms of coverage. This becomes apparent in the latter half of the movie where dialogue scenes hold on a single character for an extended length of time. Usually, such scenes would have a regular rhythm of alternating cuts over the shoulder of each actor, but you’ll come to notice that even when the other actor is speaking, there is no cut to his or her face. It’s not even covered in a in-profile two shot. It stays on that one over-the-shoulder shot of the person who is not regularly talking, and stays there for probably half the scene. I cannot say if this is a good or bad idea without understanding the intention behind it. Oddly, this being pointed out to me is why I gave this film another look. As a filmmaker, I’m always open to new ways of doing things, and adopting new styles if they are compatible with my mentalities. In the end, it’s an interesting way of shooting or at least editing a scene, but I don’t think the film is particularly better or worse for doing this. It’s intriguing is all.
There is also some mixed reaction to offer on the action scenes. The chase through the airport where Chance runs down an accomplice of Masters, portrayed by John Turturro, is great and nicely succinct. It entirely works as a solid jolt of excitement, and I enjoy it thoroughly. No issues there. However, it is the big car chase scene that is the mixed bag. It is surely intense, well shot, and well edited. As the film’s major action sequence, it is quite well executed, to a degree. The entire rest of the film is filled with pop music and an energetic score, but this, its biggest action set piece, features no score of any kind at all. The difference a score makes in this situation is taking the sequence from being just “Oh, that’s dangerous,” to “Damn, that’s exciting!” A score builds up the adrenalin and enhances the imminent peril of the action. It can create that fever pitch of exhilaration that can make or break a scene. The absence of a score here doesn’t kill this scene, but it could have added so much more. Also, you might happen to notice that ALL of the traffic on the highway is going the opposite direction of what it should be. Everyone is driving on the left hand side of the road. Cars in the northbound lanes are travelling southbound and vice versa. I honestly don’t understand why this sequence was staged this way. Like with what I will get into with the film’s final act, it doesn’t make any sense and is ass-backwards.
Since I mentioned the score, I should elaborate on its quality. It’s better in some scenes than others, but generally, it’s just okay. I can’t quite wrap my head around hiring pop band Wang Chung to do the score for this entire film. The band had never done such a thing before, and were really only a mildly popular band. Sometimes these things work amazingly well such as with Tangerine Dream, and I think their scores for Thief and Risky Business are masterful works that capture a unique and brilliant atmosphere. Wang Chung’s score is fairly average with no real ambition or uniqueness to be of special note. Some of the songs in the film even fall on the low end of my quality spectrum. There was such better music of this genre in 1985 that it’s a bit disappointing that this was the best collection of music that could be assembled for this movie. The music just wasn’t memorable in the least to me.
Now, if you do not want spoilers about the film’s ending, skip this entire paragraph and the next. I cannot critique it without being explicit about what happens. I can respect throwing a swerve at the audience in killing your main character unexpectedly, but it has to be earned. There needs to be a thematic storyline running through this that builds up to such an abrupt, anti-climactic moment. Chance is unceremoniously shot in the face as soon as he and Vukovich move to arrest Masters, and it comes off like the most inane idea ever. I believe I can understand part of what Friedkin was attempting to achieve with this event which was entirely improvised on set. Chance is a guy that takes greater and greater risks, pushing things too far for his own obsessive ends. Maybe having him die in a poetic fashion where he does push it one step too far, and pays the price for it would potentially work. Instead, he goes out like a punk, a worthless nobody. The film doesn’t have that dramatic build up to make this work. Yes, he crossed a huge line with his heist from what were actual undercover FBI agents to come up with the front money for Masters, but the film lacks any form of thematic material to have all the reckless behavior culminate in anything. If we saw the obsession eat at him, tear his senses away, and push him beyond the limits to where he invites consequence upon himself, that would potentially make this ending work. The problem is that Chance honestly doesn’t seem much different from any other movie cop that bends the rules and crosses lines where he sees fit. He is a charismatic character, but in the scale of anti-heroes, he’s just above mild. A real great example of what I’m talking about would be in Point Break where the antagonist is an adrenalin junkie who pushes things so far that his friends pay the fatal price for it, and it comes down to one of my favorite endings in movie history that has poetic qualities to it. There’s a price to be paid for what he’s done, but the film handles it in such a perfect way that was setup early on. To Live and Die in L.A. has no setup for the abrupt, shallow murder of Richard Chance.
And it only gets worse from there. What is done with the John Vukovich character is ridiculous, and has no build up, either. After clearly deteriorating into this mess of a man whose conscience is haunting him over the death of the undercover FBI agent they stole from, the ending of the film throws us another swerve. They have Vukovich essentially become Chance. He dresses like him, acts like him, and plans to start using and abusing Ruth just like Chance did. None of this correlates with anything this character was going through at anytime during the rest of the film. It’s thrown in there to be “cool,” but it comes off as near laughable. This is a character that was against everything Chance was doing every step of the way, but kept getting ensnared into it, regardless. This isn’t someone who was going to abandon his by-the-book mentality and troubled conscience. He was more likely to psychologically fall apart and turn in his badge out of guilt. It makes no sense for Vukovich to willingly adopt the mentality of Chance when he was so strongly opposed to it, and after seeing where Chance’s reckless behavior lead him to.
If it wasn’t for this one-two punch of really bad ideas for an ending, I could give this movie a mild recommendation. Something that you could gain some decent enjoyment out of, but nothing to place big expectations for. I honestly feel that if To Live and Die in L.A. was a Michael Mann film, it would have been a thousand times better. If for nothing else, Mann would never in a million years employ the shallow swerves of an ending we got. Considering the following year he made Manhunter starring William Petersen, I think that statement carries a lot of weight. There are episodes of Miami Vice that are masterful works that are better than many feature film crime thrillers, and this film is no exception. As I said, Friedkin tries to channel that vibe and style, but it feels like a second rate imitation that doesn’t capture that emotional substance or sleek cinematic brilliance. He wanted it to be stylish, exciting, and smart, but it’s too lacking on all those fronts to succeed. The main issue with To Live and Die in L.A. is that it thinks it’s a smarter, sharper, edgier film than it really is when it is more or less an average action thriller. There’s barely any depth to the characters, the visuals aren’t anything special, the music is mediocre at best, and the screenplay is more focused on the procedural aspects than the character based ideas it thinks its ending pays off. It’s not a film I hate, aside from the ending, as I had a decent time watching it again, mainly due to Petersen’s performance, but I don’t see the masterpiece of crime cinema that others perceive in it. I’ve seen so much better from Heat to The Usual Suspects to Drive that you really need to work a lot harder to reach such standards.