To Live and Die in L.A.
Working out of the Los Angeles field office, Secret Service agent Richard Chance (William Petersen) is about to be without a partner as his longtime fellow agent (Michael Greene) is only days away from retirement. The partner instead turns up dead at a remote desert warehouse, and Chance knows who he was investigating, a professional counterfeiter, Eric Masters (Willem Dafoe), who they have long been after. Swearing to put away his friend and partner's killer, Chance will stop at nothing -- NOTHING -- to get Masters who has proved very elusive when it comes to proving his guilt. Saddled with a new partner, the more button-down John Vukovich (John Pankow), Chance follows the evidence where it may lead, but Masters has some trouble of his own. Who can get to the other one first? How far will either man go to get what they want?
With 1971's The French Connection and 1973's The Exorcist, director William Friedkin had one of the most impressive one-two punches of back-to-back films...well, ever. He followed them up with a string of movies that struggled -- for whatever reason -- to get any footing to the point that this 1975 cop thriller/drama is considered by some as his comeback of sorts. What a comeback it is. It works because of all its moving pieces. Stylish and innovative, it is very 1980's. It is equal parts dark, gritty, brutally violent and uncomfortable at times. And then for good measure, 'Live and Die' has a little art-house in its story and characters. Quite the mix, ain't it? This is the sort of movie that shouldn't work, but does it ever, almost in spite of flaws that would cripple most other movies.
Through his previous movies, Friedkin had shown his ability not just as a director, but as an auteur. He made films, not always movies. He was willing to try something different, to reach for something difficult, to not settle for the status quo. 'Live and Die' is a case in point. It's like a procedural cop drama/thriller...on steroids and cocaine with some LSD thrown in. Friedkin freaking GOES FOR IT. The style is schizophrenic, the score from Wang Chung incredibly 1980's, the violence in your face, and even some frontal male nudity, not to mention a whole lot of guy butt. Stylized, computer title cards show the progression of time, and Los Angeles ends up becoming an additional character, a charged-up backdrop to the ever-crazy story developments. How far will it go? How far will Petersen's Chance go? Getting there is more than half the fun. It is the definition of an unpredictable movie, and that is rarely a bad thing.
I grew up and will always associate William Petersen with O-N-E part...that of CSI's Gil Grissom. This was his first starring role, starting a handful of late 80's/early 90's flicks that seemed to indicate Petersen was going to be a star, a big one. It never quite came together, but my goodness, what a starring debut. The rogue cop who plays by his rules -- laws, procedures and protocol BE DAMNED -- is absolutely nothing new to the genre, but Petersen injects a ridiculous amount of energy to Agent Chance. He brings balls. He brings swagger. He brings uber-confidence. How good? At a certain point, you're not even rooting for him anymore to the point he's unlikable but you just can't look away. Chance is manipulative, intimidating, not above breaking the law, and callously disinterested in anything that doesn't affect the case.
Part of it is the look. It is the mid 1980's, and Peterson's Chance wears tight jeans at all times, badass sunglasses, badass boots, badass leather jacket and...well...badass. He reeks of cool. He's an adrenaline junkie. He pushes his partner too far. He basically blackmails a parolee/informant (Darlanne Fluegel) into a sexual relationship. He threatens lives left and right, some being claimed. I keep coming back to swagger. There is a physicality to the part, Petersen running like a maniac through chases scenes, brimming with energy in interrogations, intimidatingly subtle when he wants something. What a part. What a performance. Clearly impacted by those cop movies before him (French Connection, Bullitt, Dirty Harry) and clearly an impact on those still to come.
Dafoe is terrifying just because he's Willem Dafoe and looks and appears terrifying. He's a villain. That's it. No real background or motivation, his Masters is just a supremely talented counterfeiter looking to make one big payday after another. Quite the match-up of stars, quite the cat and mouse game (but who's who?). Along with Fluegel and Pankow (an excellent supporting part of a conscious-riddled cop), look for John Turturro, Debra Feuer, and Dean Stockwell as a high-class, scumbag lawyer in key supporting parts.
When filming the famous French Connection car chase, Friedkin apparently wanted to do bigger and better but simply ran out of time. The run-off falls to this flick, and it does not disappoint. Chase and his new partner kidnap someone for reasons because of a case (Just Watch It) and things go horribly wrong in a bullet-riddled chase and shootout through Los Angeles' backroads, highways and of course, the Los Angeles River. The capper is an incredible driving sequence as Chase drives into incoming traffic in hopes of getting away relatively unscathed. It is an absolutely insanely tension-packed extended sequence, expertly shot, cut and edited by Friedkin and his crew that belongs on the same level as similar chases in Bullitt, French Connection and so many more I'm forgetting. An amazing sequence to watch.
What a crazy movie. I have a picture of Friedkin filming and editing his film, basically flipping the bird to anyone and everyone in front of him. I kept thinking while watching this thriller that 'Live and Die' was Friedkin as a renegade director before Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez took over that notion in the 1990's. Friedkin is -- simply put -- at the top of his game here. It's days later, and I'm still thinking about this one. It keeps building and building to one of the most surprising, trippiest finales I've ever seen. Genuine shock value on several different levels. Can't recommend this one enough. Also, one movie kept popping into my head as I watched this 1985 film as having a huge, profound impact on said newer film. That movie? Drive with Ryan Gosling. Watch both and tell me they couldn't be impeccable companion pieces.
To Live and Die in L.A. (1985): *** 1/2 /****