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To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)

To Live And Die In LAI 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.


American Psycho (2000)

Brilliance!  That is what this film has always been to me.  It had controversy surrounding it when it was made and released, but time resolves these issues.  Films that take chances and tackle some explicit subject matter often polarize audiences, but all I ever saw from this was a hell of an entertaining, genius piece of cinema.  A true twisted classic that introduced me to one of my favorite actors of all time.

Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is an empty man.  He lacks emotion, he lacks a sense of reality, and seriously lacks a genuine sense of humanity.  “There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman…but I simply am not there.”  For whatever perverse reason, Patrick Bateman is completely disassociated from the rest of humanity.  He’s a Wall Street executive that really does nothing all day long, but earns loads of money despite it.  He finds many people despicable from his girlfriend Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon) to his own co-workers to the random homeless man on the street.  By night, he has a terrible bloodlust that he is slowly losing control of.  But the question ends up being – what is reality and what is just pure fantasy?  This is a dark, dark journey through the mind of one demented and empty individual – welcome to the life of Patrick Bateman.

Christian Bale is a marvel!  I really was not familiar at all with Bale before this film, but afterwards, I took close notice of him.  When I heard he was up for the role of Batman / Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins I was 100% in support of him, and he proved me and many others right.  The man has brilliant acting abilities, and fully immerses himself within his roles, both mentally and physically.  As Patrick Bateman, he plays the role with a lot of fun.  The manic and maddening nature of Bateman is brought out fully under Bale’s talents, and it becomes a wholly satisfying performance that will disturb and entertain.  Bateman is a seriously sick man, and honestly has no comfort zone in this world of ours – probably why he becomes lost in his own world of fantasy. Bale just plays it up like I believe no one else ever possibly could.  His moments of introspection are unsettling as he knows that he’s a sociopath, but has no idea just how far off the deep end he will go.

The supporting cast is wonderful as well.  They give quite the counter-balance to Bateman’s madness and hysteria.  Reese Witherspoon has a small, yet pertinent role as Bateman’s girlfriend who is a regular materialistic, high society snob that’s rather oblivious to Patrick in general, and Bateman, in return, cannot stomach her.  Willem Dafoe wonderfully portrays Detective Donald Kimball, who is hired to investigate the disappearance of one of Patrick’s co-workers – Paul Allen (Jared Leto).  Through the brilliance of Dafoe’s acting and Mary Harron’s directing, you never quite know what Kimball does or doesn’t know.  He keeps Bateman guessing – not to mention sweating.  While much has been admittedly attributed to editing two different performances by Dafoe, he delivers both qualities with a great deal of skill.  He has fantastic chemistry with Bale.

Jared Leto is also wonderfully hilarious as Paul Allen.  There’s enough satire in what he does to make the character not simply a stuck-up moron.  Leto plays stupid very intelligently.  He holds up his end of the scenes with Bale equally well.  He’s immensely entertaining, and an excellent encapsulation of this film’s satirical mindset.  The entire cast is just great.  They all play very intriguing characters, and they all do so extremely well.  There’s not a negative note about any of it.

The music in this film plays up the off-balance mental state of Bateman.  It goes between very high class music reflecting an affluent sensibility, and Bateman’s love of contemporary pop music.  With this being set in the late 1980s, the soundtrack is rich with songs from Phil Collins, Robert Palmer, and Huey Lewis & The News.  When this music is set against particular scenes, it accentuates Bateman’s dementia to an extreme.  My favorite is with Lewis’ “Hip to be Square” where Bale engages in the lamest little dance which is actually a stroke of improvisational brilliance on Christian Bale’s part.  If ever I were to meet Mr. Bale, I’d love to put this song on the stereo, and have him re-enact that moment.  It cracks me up like crazy.  The score is beautifully composed by John Cale, and it was an absolute stroke of genius to take this route.

This film is a dark satire on 1980s American capitalism in how the desire for wealth dominates everyone’s lives, and how it dwarfs their sense of humanity and morality.  Most of the characters are so full of themselves that they can barely tell one person apart from another, or at least, don’t place enough worth on anyone else to care.  Mistaken identities are abound in the film, which is an allegory to how Bateman has no real sense of self.  Everything in the film reflects upon that since it is all told from his perspective.  With Christian Bale being a Welshman, I’m sure that allowed him to bring an original perspective towards the satirical subject matter and Bateman himself.

American Psycho was mainly controversial for its use of explicit sex, violence, and twisted psychological subject matter.  That means the film is not for everyone as these are all taken to generous extremes, especially in the highly satisfying unrated cut.  There are a lot of great sequences in this film because of those elements, none that I will spoil for you, but many are there to reveal the fact that Patrick Bateman tries to emulate certain behaviors.  From a pornographic video to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, he integrates them into his twisted fantasies, but there remains the question – how real are they?  The psychological ambiguity of this film is masterful.  There is plenty of evidence to support whatever theory you choose, but you have to look at the subtleties to truly grasp all the possible meanings.  Did Bateman actually do all these horrendous, violent acts, and the world is just so consumed with greed, self-importance, and indifference that it doesn’t matter?  Or is Bateman so far out of his mind that he cannot separate his own sick fantasies from hard reality?  Both theories are fascinating to explore, and neither can be entirely discounted.  This is not one of those films which presents you all the evidence, and just leaves you blowing in the wind as the credits roll.  That’s where Patrick Bateman’s internal monologues come in.  They give you a perspective on these things, and allows you to see it all through his eyes.  And even at the end, Bateman doesn’t know what to believe, but with that internal voice, an audience gains the only thing that matters – what it all means to Bateman.

American Psycho is a crazed psychological descent into a giant black void that is filled with immense entertainment values. You can indulge yourself in Bateman’s over-the-top manic madness, or get completely freaked out by it – or both.  Whatever the case, director Mary Harron delivered a massively unique and fascinating adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel.  It gave Christian Bale what was most likely his breakout role.  I absolutely love this film, and if that means I’m a bit strange, then I find that to be nothing new.  I give American Psycho a perfect score and my strongest recommendation to whoever feels this is for them.