Welcome to The Essentials, a series of articles originally published in 2016 that dared to try and create a list of essential movies for film lovers. This entry explores William Friedkin’s kinetic crime saga, ‘To Live and Die in L.A.’
Two things are clear from the first fifteen minutes or so of William Friedkin’s under-appreciated 1985 feature, To Live and Die in L.A.
First, from the brightly-colored title credits to the Wang Chung score this is every inch an ’80s movie. And second, Secret Service agent Jim Hart, a man who’s both “getting too old for this shit” and mere days away from retirement, is going to die any moment now. Cue one shotgun blast to the chest.
Hart’s partner, Agent Richard Chance (William Petersen), takes his best friend’s murder hard and turns the department’s investigation of master counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe) into a personal vendetta. Chance’s tactics are unorthodox – we should have expected as much seeing as he’s into bungee jumping – and he immediately clashes with his new partner, the by-the-book John Vukovich (John Pankow).
Efforts to catch Masters are stymied by his own intelligence as well as the Treasury Department’s unwillingness to approve large cash sums to front a sting operation. Chance devises an off the book plan – you can almost hear Vukovich’s anus clenching – involving an unrelated tip on a Chinese businessman coming to town with $50k intended for an illegal purchase. Is it robbery if you steal from a criminal? Chance doesn’t think so, and after some insults and cajoling Vukovich joins him on the escapade.
Friedkin’s film, based on Gerald Petievich’s novel, is ostensibly a tale of cops and crooks, but while the “good” guys eventually catch the bad that arc is never truly the focus. It’s a movie about illusion and imitation, both in appearance and effect. Counterfeiting isn’t a sexy crime, but Friedkin crafts a sensual, living world built on a foundation of people and things pretending to be what they aren’t. Relationships here, on both sides of the law, are as fake as the money at the core of the story. And for all the cliches the films sets up it ultimately ignores them in favor of a far more cynical and often surprising narrative. As a wise critic once noted, it’s a successfully entertaining mix of dark sensibilities, honest excitement, and intelligent thrills that leave no guarantee as to the morality or life expectancy of its characters.
Chance is the action-junkie constantly pushing himself to the point of risking not only his life but those around him as well, but he’s more than just a bow-legged Mountain Dew ad. He’s also a prick. Audiences fall in with him as the film’s brash lead, but while we’ll forgive his action-oriented antics his swagger and confidence can’t hide a terrible mistreatment of the woman in his life. Ruth (Darlanne Fluegel) is the part-time snitch on parole who lives with him and who he screws and threatens to return to jail with abandon. “I can do whatever I want,” he tells her at one point, and it’s clear that she believes him.
On the surface they seem an understandable, albeit dysfunctional, fit for each other, but just as he loosely pretends to give a damn about her she’s no less duplicitous. The difference being that while his falseness comes from a place of dickish entitlement and ego hers is fueled by a need for survival. She gives him the tip on the Chinaman, and she’s not all that surprised when the “simple” theft goes sideways. It’s never confirmed, but it’s strongly implied that the outcome – Chance gets the money and the Chinaman dies in the ensuing shootout – is far from the one she had hoped for.
Viewers owe her a debt though as it opens the door to some tense action and one hell of a car chase. Friedkin will eternally be remembered for the chase in The French Connection, and rightfully so, but his accomplishment here is every bit as thrilling and visceral in the tangible physicality of it all. The grinding gears, screeching tires, and scraping metal enhance his embrace of wide shots and use of real traffic (at times). Films like the Bourne series deliver exciting chase scenes, but their success is due more to editing than anything else. By contrast, Friedkin makes us believe this chase is happening and that these characters are the wheel. It’s perhaps unsurprising to learn that authenticity led the film’s DP to feel uncomfortable shooting the epic scene opening the door for 2nd unit director Robert Yeoman to step in to do the job.
Friedkin smartly infuses the action with brief character reminders too as Chance and Vukovich both reveal themselves with quick glimpses into their minds. The former is recalling the thrill of a bungee jump while the latter sees only the image of the dead Chinaman. We’re given a few minutes to enjoy the exhilaration of the chase before Friedkin darkens the tone further with the reveal that the dead man was an undercover FBI agent. It’s a line that can’t be uncrossed, but while it leaves Chance an irredeemable character Friedkin still crafts his death as both shocking and sudden. Even on repeated viewings, even knowing the kill is coming, the moment hits with the force of a shotgun blast to the face.
The physical nature of the film’s action is extended to its sexuality in ways atypical for the genre. The men are on display as boldly and frequently as the women – Petersen’s nutsack even makes an appearance – as characters strip down for sex or a workout with equal casualness. Even as they reveal more and more flesh though their true selves remain hidden behind carefully crafted personas. Women feign affection and attraction for security and cash, men front power and authority but are neutered by greed and ego, and an incorruptible by-the-book cop is revealed as neither.
Vukovich’s seemingly generic and straight-laced goody goody is the only one to be called out on his fraudulent appearance, by Chance of course, when he’s berated for being neither a friend nor an ass-kicking partner. It’s true, he’s neither of those things to Chance (and who would blame him), but he’s also the only one to shift and actually become the image. Where Chance’s tough-guy appearance takes multiple knocks – he grows increasingly careless and incompetent and gets taken down by both the Chinaman and John Turturro. Who gets beaten up by John Turturro?! – Vukovich actually becomes a more capable cop. He becomes Chance, as the kids say, both in the streets and in the sheets, as he takes down Masters and stakes his claim on Ruth’s services.
Vukovich’s survival and Chance’s demise clashes with the well-established cliche of the tough veteran cop living and moving on from his newbie partner’s death – see Black Rain, Street Kings, Turner and Hooch, every Dirty Harry film – and it ends the film on a grimly satisfying note. It’s an ’80s film, perhaps to its detriment for some viewers, but To Live and Die in L.A. was also one of the last (for a while at least) to carry over the dark cynicism of ’70s cops/robbers cinema.
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