Based on a crime novel written by Gerald Petievich and released in 1985, ‘TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A’ (TLDLA) is a vintage cinematic gem that still holds its own today. The movie is a master class that demonstrates what a truly great modern neo-noir crime thriller can be; drenched in pure 80s excess, the movie promotes the era with gleeful enthusiasm. There is a vibrant tone, thanks to synth heavy stylings of British Nu Wave group Wang Chung which perhaps attempts to mask the nihilistic underbelly, in a city riddled with violent conflict and twisted morals.
As with any crime thriller, the notion of causality is front and centre with the pursuit of vengeance creating more than its fair share of victims, amongst the willing (and unwilling) participants. Departing from many of the cheeky comedic tropes of buddy-cop movies of the time, TLDLA is far more cynical and its primary characters are decidedly more mean spirited. Yet even as the heroes teeter on the edge of villainy, there is still an admirable quality to them as they set out to exact revenge and right the wrongs – regardless of the cost.
Unlike the standardized law enforcement template seen in most films of the era, Friedkin opted to elevate the character roles making them US secret service agents, rather than just beat cops. In doing so, it’s almost as if Friedkin had decided to enhance the structure seen in ‘THE FRENCH CONNECTION’ yet still retaining the raw grittiness of that setting.
On the quest to avenge the murder of his partner Jimmy Hart (Michael Greene) who was just days away from retirement, the daring secret service agent Richard Chance (William Petersen) finds himself head-to-head with the villainous counter fitter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe). Flanked by a younger and more idealistic partner, John Vukovich (John Pankow), Chance embarks on the road to vengeance complete with a healthy dose of brutally realistic fisticuffs, violent gunfights, and white knuckle car chases. And yet for all its spectacular content, the movie also manages to insert some impressive twists that will leave the audience shell shocked.
Petersen is excellent as the roguish yet likable Richard Chance, whose methods although questionable, are driven by otherwise heroic goals. As a morally dubious character, his effectiveness is undeniable; and this leaves an profound impression upon the younger and seemingly more ethical John Vukovich. Most viewers today would recognize Petersen as the quirky genius scientist Gil Grissom in CSI TV series, who is a morally upstanding protagonist. Yet in Friedkin’s movie, his jaded experienced secret service agent can be admired for his swagger and then deplored for his unethical methods; he succeeds despite thumbing his nose at the rule book. By contrast, Pankow’s Vukovich is the impressionable by-the-book newcomer, who is disgusted by Chance’s behavior yet gradually follows out of dogged loyalty and the realization of Chance’s ability to excel. Unlike the witty repartee between Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) in ‘LETHAL WEAPON’, there is no comedic respite in Friedkin’s vision of the 1980s – which makes his movie a far more arduous but more compelling affair.
The versatility of Dafoe cannot be understated, his performance in this movie is a sinister standout. As the psychotic Rick Masters, he is incredibly creepy and operates with such malevolence that is captivating and fear inducing. It is fascinating to note that only a year later, Dafoe would do a ‘face-turn’ as the caring Sergeant Elias Gordon in Oliver Stone’s ‘PLATOON’ and three years later portray the noble Agent Alan Ward in Alan Parker’s biographical ‘MISSISSIPPI BURNING.’ Dafoe’s ability to diversify his talents into a range of roles, completely predates that of Christoph Waltz who has boasted this skill in the last number of years.
TLDLA supporting cast is just as impressive as the leads, which include the likes of Dean Stockwell as slimy Lawyer Bob Grimes, John Turturro as low rent crim Carl Cody and the late Darlanne Fluegel as the sexy informant, Ruth Lainer. Given that the movie is now over 35 years old, this picture was very much an early cinematic start for many of these actors, specifically Stockwell and Turturro.
What is somewhat surprising is that in 1973, Friedkin had created one of the most terrifying horror films of all time with ‘THE EXORCIST.’ Though TLDLA is distinct enough and clear in its crime thriller genre, it contains real world themes that succeed in unsettling the audience. Revealing more adept specialists as easily corruptible is a far more disturbing premise, than anything supernatural – as the misuse of power is a reality in any society. It thereby reflects Sir John Dalberg-Acton assertion that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”
Indeed, it’s the concluding moments of TLDLA that boast this corruptive element, seemingly evoking the ending of Friedkin’s horror classic. However whilst Father Karas’ (Jason Miller) sacrifice is not made in vain, no such honour is demonstrated by Vukovich with a moment that shows just how quickly human decency and ethics can be eroded by pure convenience, as much as greed.
Intriguingly, one could draw some comparisons with Antoine Fuqua’s ‘TRAINING DAY’, with the unsavory tactics of Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington) taking their toll on his younger partner Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke). However, those that have seen both movies would be aware that there is no silver lining, nor cathartic conclusion in Friedkin’s film. Instead the brutal volatility, continues to fester and grow creating a further atmosphere of dread that is palpable even as Wang Chung’s upbeat ‘Wait’ plays over the end credits.
Though never a direct influence, one could assert Vukovich’s story as a modern adaptation of the Italian literary classic ‘The Divine Comedy’ by Dante Alighieri – albeit with Vukovich’s journey played in reverse, as he progressively, and willingly descends into his own personal hell. Yet the acceptance of his fate, suggest that this may have been his intended path all along, and the cycle of violence and corruption will continue. Though a vastly different ending was filmed, thankfully Friedkin bravely opted to include the more downbeat and depressing conclusion to maintain the consistency of the dour, oppressive setting.
In the Chicago-Sun Times the legendary film critic Roger Ebert, gave ‘TO LIVE AND DIE IN LA’ a near perfect score and stated “The movie is also first-rate. The direction is the key. Friedkin has made some good movies…and some bad ones. This is his comeback, showing the depth and skill of the early pictures”. This journalist asserts that William Friedkin’s ‘TO LIVE AND DIE IN LA’ is even closer to cinematic perfection, than what Ebert initially observed in his review – it is a must watch, and will easily command multiple viewings.
One would hope that no current film maker will opt to remake this classic, for doing so would be sacrilege.
Lead image: Arrow Video