Thrillers that go over the top can either turn an average story into a surprising breakthrough, or they can illuminate weaknesses in an embarrassing attempt at standing out. In William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A., the 1985 film treads that line carefully as the violent and graphic renegade narrative often feels at odds with a lot of style and dialog choices running throughout. What it does thoroughly well, however, is encapsulating the sights, sounds, and complexities that define Los Angeles.
Based on the novel written by former Secret Service agent Gerald Petievich, Friedkin obviously tries to channel The French Connection type energy in To Live and Die in L.A., with a script that is as tough as leather but very modern. Unfortunately, modern in this case means mid-’80s, which carries with it an aesthetic that is hit and miss at times. Whether it’s the pretentious artiness, the ugly opening credits, the bad fashion, or the hokey dialog, a lot of what was cool then just doesn’t work well in a post-Miami Vice environment. The worst offender is Friedkin’s unfortunate choice of Wang Chung for soundtrack control, which lends itself well to the film in only a few scenes.
The film begins with veteran hotshot Richard Chance (William L. Petersen) and the aging Jimmy Hart (Michael Greene), two United States Secret Service agents with the Treasury Department, assigned as counterfeiting investigators in its Los Angeles field office. After almost dying trying to protect President Reagan, Hart comes to terms with his nearing retirement. With three days left before he rides off into the sunset, he takes on one last mission to apprehend infamous counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe). Unfortunately, he gets murdered by Masters and his goons after finding out the details of the counterfeiting scheme. Chance becomes enraged by the news, and with newbie partner John Vukovich (John Pankow), they seek to bring down Masters by any means necessary.
Due to budget constraints imposed by the studio, Friedkin wasn’t able to get a cast full of stars, but there are a lot of bright performances by the film’s supporting actors. John Turturro pulls off a strong early performance, while Dean Stockwell fits perfectly as the stern and business-minded lawyer. Petersen is an average lead, but doesn’t quite express the nuances of his morally ambiguous character. Dafoe fairs better on the other hand, giving a lot of depth to the icy cold Masters, and his interactions with characters are some of the more memorable moments. Pankow as Vukovich fits well as the contrast to Chance’s explosive bravado, as his character’s moral compass keeps the audience invested in the film.
One of the most impressive aspects, beyond its visual authenticity, is the immense freeway chase scene across Los Angeles, which reportedly took six weeks to film. Consisting of the two agents driving against traffic, with Chance defiant and Vukovich in shambles, the chase is the best moment in the film as the underlying tension explodes into a high speed pursuit. Although the first half of the film typically plays by standard Hollywood cop film rules, by the second half it descends into much darker territory, with everything getting thrown out the window. The fate of Chance is particularly unexpected, as it throws off the trajectory of where a predictable action thriller should go, and the resulting end is something much braver than what one would expect.
The Blu-ray release of To Live and Die in L.A. also includes a standard definition DVD of the film. The choice would make more sense if both discs had equal exclusives, but the Blu-ray’s only real feature is the high definition video, which is a marked improvement (yet grainy at times). The DVD remains the same as previous releases, with commentary by Friedkin and an excellent documentary featurette where it is revealed that the brilliant counterfeit scene was done legitimately in order to provide greater authenticity. It’s just unfortunate that the Blu-ray disc is scant on exclusive features that would make this upgrade more salient, but at least it’s sold at a decent price point.
With an understated cast and a script that has more grit than most other police films from the era, To Live and Die in L.A. is surprisingly brutal in ways that most “buddy cop” films aren’t. Poor soundtrack choices and some painful dialog, however, sometimes make you feel like you’re watching a Los Angeles version of Miami Vice. Ultimately, Friedkin makes a film that doesn’t hit all its marks, with enough energy to make it stand out, but not enough for it to reach greatness.