October 19, 2016
To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)
A synopsis of To Live and Die in L.A. makes it sound like an incredible crass and cliche-ridden potboiler, and to a large extent that's a fair assessment of the movie. It's a 1985 action film directed by William Friedkin that really does trade extensively on stereotype. The first half pushed my limit for tolerating this sort of silly machismo. The second half completely redeemed it, as Chance's actions grew more extreme and the film began to push off in unexpected directions.
This is not top-tier Friedkin; the director's earlier works include The French Connection, The Exorcist and Sorcerer, after all, and To Live and Die in L.A. would have to be pretty formidable to hit those peaks. It is a smartly directed film, however, and some clever direction and typically strong editing help to make it much more than the sum of its parts.
William Petersen's blunt, angry portrayal of Chance is not one of the film's highlights, but then given how simplistic his character is it's difficult to see a better way Petersen could have tackled it. The characters around him are much more interesting. Willem Dafoe makes a huge impression as the slick, sexually ambivalent Masters, seeming to draw a lot of experience from David Bowie's various identities and creating the most intriguing character in the whole movie. John Pankow is also great as Vukovich. It would be easy to call him naive, but in truth he is just an honest man who is thrown in much deeper than anybody could reasonably expect. Lifting evidence from crime scenes is one level of misbehaviour, but before long Chance is demanding that both men rob a criminal of $50,000 to fund their crusade against Masters. Pankow eventually moved into comedy in TV series like Mad About You and Episodes. I think that was drama's loss.
Like all of Friedkin's films it is masterfully edited. On a shot-to-shot basis it is extremely sharp, but it's in the choices of what moment to cut out of a scene or cut into one that Friedkin and his editor M. Scott Smith have really excelled.
Robby Muller's cinematography really gives the film a sense of place as well, shooting Los Angeles' grimier back streets and alleys in a hugely immersive fashion. Returning to this film after playing the videogame Grand Theft Auto V really drives home how big an influence this film was on that game. The standout sequence of the film is an extended car chase that screams GTA. Despite not matching the visceral strength of a similar chase in The French Connection, Friedkin still manages to succeed at the task of making the scene emotionally intense and panicky while still ensuring that it's clear what is going on. Contemporary action films usually manage one or the other, but rarely both.
Is it Friedkin at his best? Absolutely not, but even Friedkin at his mediocre is better than many other filmmakers' top work. It has dated, particularly it's oh-so-1985 Wang Chung soundtrack, but it still offers a lot of entertainment value.