“Uncle Sam don’t give a shit about your expenses. You want bread? Fuck a baker.”
“Cruising” indeed marked the start of a slow and steady decline for director William Friedkin, but that doesn’t mean that he did not make any interesting films after it. “Blue Chips”, “Rules of Engagement” and “Bug” all have their superficial charms, but precisely because these qualities are rather superficial I wouldn’t call any of them truly good films. However, there is the case of “To Live and Die in L.A.”, which for me is one of the underrated crime films of the 80’s.
“To Live and Die in L.A.” has a very familiar premise, a loose cannon secret service agent is chasing after a money counterfeiter who is responsible for the death of his partner. And he is determined to capture him by any means necessary. But where this film stands out is that despite this cliché set-up it grounds the events in a rather realistic frame. For example we see a rather convincing process of how to counterfeit money from blank paper to the finished bill. The film also shows how bureaucracy can get in the way of proper police work and the L.A. it portrays is very far from the glitz of Hollywood and the posh living of Beverly Hills.
In fact the city of Los Angeles is almost like a character in its own right in this film. It is shown in a very grounded, but majestic light. The film stays away from the high-rise of the city, but instead focuses on its flat vastness. It is very reminiscent of the work of Michael Mann in this sense, most notably “Heat” and “Collateral”, but it avoids aestheticizing the city and instead portrays it in a gritty realism.
Do not be fooled however, this still is an 80’s action movie. I’m just saying that it’s not a dumb one. And at the center of it is a classic badass anti-hero adrenaline-junkie cop, played by William Petersen, who is unfortunately unconvincing at times. Thankfully the ruthless counterfeiter that he is after is played by Willem Dafoe, who is always an intriguing presence on the screen.
However what is convincing about the film is its relentless pacing. “To Live and Die in L.A.” possesses a great forward momentum from the very start, which climaxes in to a great car chase through the streets, canals and highways of L.A. It is hard not to compare it to the legendary chase scene from “The French Connection” and although it never reaches those heights it comes pretty damn close. Friedkin has really mastered the car chase; he made it almost in to an art-form in its own right with these two films and re-defined it for any filmmaker willing to try his hand at shooting one.
But even beyond that the film has more to offer. The final stretch is both shocking and reminiscent of Friedkin’s other work. The change of personality is a theme that crops up often in his films, from “The Exorcist” to “Cruising” and now in this film again. In fact the final minutes of “To Live and Die in L.A.” almost beg for the comparison with the final minutes of “Cruising”, and there is certainly a clear line that can be drawn upon closer inspection.
It’s very easy to recommend a film like this and although it does not have thematic depths of some of Friedkin’s other work, it makes up in spades with swagger and thrills. It is a superior crime film.
William Petersen - Richard Chance
Willem Dafoe - Eric Masters
John Pankow - John Vukovich
John Turturro - Carl Cody
Dean Stockwell - Bob Grimes
To Live and Die in L.A. on IMDb