This is our first copy of To Live and Die in L.A., but between the blaring synthpop score from new wave band Wang Chung and the eye-searing neon green credits, there’s little doubt it was made in the 80s. Directed and co-written by William Friedkin (who made The Exorcist and The French Connection), it’s the sort of action movie where characters have names like Richard Chance (William Petersen) and Rick Masters (a 30-year-old Willem Dafoe). Chance is the ostensible hero here, a daredevil Secret Service agent with a grudge against Masters, an expert counterfeiter who wears long coats and likes to burn his own paintings. Early on, there’s a montage of Masters’s process that looks great not only for its crisp colors, but for its extreme detail—Friedkin and Dafoe consulted with real counterfeiters to make “real” fake bills, some of which leaked out of the set and into circulation.
What sets To Live and Die in L.A. apart from the average Cop on the Edge thriller is its conscious amorality—there’s no glamor to Chance’s methods and certainly no apologies for them. When everything goes so ludicrously wrong, how could the ends justify the means for catching a guy whose primary crime is just pushing funny money onto the streets? Intentional or no, Petersen’s awkwardness in the lead enhances the overall sense of sleaze. In his leather jacket and his aviators, he never seems cool so much as cruel and distant. You don’t want to be this guy; you want to get as far away from him as a possible. A lot of the suspense comes from the resulting sense that Chance might actually get what’s coming to him, when he does stuff like shake off pursuers by driving against the flow of L.A. traffic for an extended chase scene. The movie has some problems since the plot doesn’t totally add up and sags in spots (the beginning has a pointless, stereotypical terrorist scene), but as a propulsive outburst of anger and seedy darkness that’s somehow never dimmed by the sun-drenched setting, there’s little that matches the film’s final 15-minute stretch. Overall Rating: A-« Back to Blog