It’s very rare when you can consider a movie to be both a product of its time and ahead of its time, but that definitely seems to be the case with To Live and Die in L.A.. This is an eighties movie, pure and simple, that was obviously inspired by the massive success that Miami Vice was enjoying at the time and features a soundtrack composed entirely by Wang Chung! However, it is also a pretty bleak, gritty and cynical action picture and considering that the eighties was the era of the light-hearted cop-buddy action-comedy, To Live and Die in L.A. didn’t strike the right chord with a lot of people at the time. There’s no doubt this film probably would have received much more praise if it had come out either a decade before or afterward, but at the time it was released, people were not in the proper mindset for it and showered it with some pretty unnecessary criticism. To Live and Die in L.A. has built up a pretty decent cult following over the years and helped launch quite a few distinguished acting careers, but it still remains pretty underrated today. The director of the film was William Friedkin, who has had one of the more uneven careers in Hollywood, to say the least. He has directed some all-time classics, like The French Connection and The Exorcist, but he’s spent the last 25 years mostly churning out films that range from the mediocre to the dreadful. To Live and Die in L.A. is probably Friedkin’s last brush with greatness and I’d say it’s one of the more underrated action-thrillers of all time.
The film is based on a novel by a former Secret Service agent named Gerald Petievich, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Friedkin. The protagonist is a Secret Service agent named Richard Chance (William L. Petersen), who works in the Los Angeles counterfeiting division and is a real arrogant hot dog who lives his life like he is invincible. One of his earlier scenes shows him bungee jumping off a bridge with only one of his legs tied to the cord and perfectly symbolizes his reckless carefree lifestyle. Anyway, Chance’s older partner is only three days away from retirement (and even utters the line “I’m too old for this shit” two years before Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon), but is brutally killed by a shotgun blast to the face by a counterfeiter named Eric Masters (Willem Dafoe). Chance swears revenge and is soon teamed up with a younger partner named John Vukovich (John Pankow), who has no idea what he’s in for. Chance and Vukovich hope to bust Masters by purchasing counterfeit money from him in an undercover sting operation, but Masters demands a down payment that’s much larger than the Secret Service is willing to authorize. Chance’s hatred for Masters is so strong that he starts believing that it’s perfectly justifiable to break the law in order to bring him down. After one of Chance’s informants, Ruth (Darlanne Fluegel) informs him about a transaction involving stolen diamonds, Chance convinces Vukovich to help him steal $50,000 from the courier, so that they can use the money as the down payment for Masters. Of course, everything goes horribly wrong. To Live and Die in L.A. is an incredibly fascinating look at the world of counterfeiting and Gerald Petievich’s own experience in the field was invaluable to providing the film’s realism. One memorable montage sequence (set to an awesome Wang Chung synthesizer score) from early in the film showcases Masters’ method for printing counterfeit money in great detail, and there was even an actual counterfeiter on set to make sure the scene was as authentic as possible!
As you might have guessed, Richard Chance is not the most likable hero you will ever find in action film. He’s completely reckless, self-absorbed and uses others for his own personal gain without a second thought. In addition to using Ruth to get information, he also sleeps with her and does not show much sympathy for her problems. When she asks that Chance pay her more money for being a snitch, his response is: “Uncle Sam don’t give a shit about your expenses. You want bread, fuck a baker”. When this film was originally released, a lot of critics were seriously bothered by the fact that the protagonist was a prick and that the good guy often acted just as sleazy as the bad guy. However, they seemed to forget that when William Friedkin made The French Connection fourteen years earlier, he pretty much did the exact same thing. Despite being a cop and the movie’s hero, Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle was not exactly as a morally upstanding citizen, but nobody really complained about that and the film wound up winning multiple Academy Awards. To Live and Die in L.A. would be nowhere near as interesting if Richard Chance was portrayed as the ultimate good guy, and the story’s theme about the thin line that exists between good and evil gives the story a real edge. Unlike Popeye Doyle, Chance chooses to cross the line and become a criminal in order to bring down a criminal. However, unlike many action films where the hero does a lot of questionable things but never has to answer for them, To Live and Die in L.A. does not hesitate to show that there are major consequences for those actions. While the story does have a lot of moral ambiguity, this film still functions extremely well as an action picture and delivers one of the greatest car chase scenes of all time. Friedkin had already delivered one of cinema’s most iconic chase sequences in The French Connection and wanted to try and do everything in his power to top himself, so his chase here involves Chance and Vukovich escaping from their pursuers by driving their car down the wrong way of a freeway! In many of my columns here, I’ve referenced great action scenes from the past that would have been done entirely with CGI if they were filmed today, but wouldn’t have been nearly as effective. This chase sequence, which features multiple shots of one car driving directly into the path of dozens of other cars going in the opposite direction, just looks insanely dangerous and it just takes your breath away when you realize that this whole thing had to be done practically and without the aid of special effects.
Because Friedkin wasn’t given a large budget to work with, he knew he wouldn’t be able to afford any big-name stars, but when you watch this film today, you will see a lot of familiar faces. Of course, William L. Petersen has become very famous for his long-time role of Gil Grissom on CSI, but he was one hell of an underrated leading man in the 1980s, delivering terrific performances in underappreciated films like this and Michael Mann’s Manhunter. To Live and Die in L.A. was only the second film role of his career and Petersen pulls off the incredibly difficult task of making the audience interested in what happens to Chance even if they don’t particularly like him. Female CSI fans may also want to know that this is your rare chance to see Grissom do a brief full frontal nude scene! While he wasn’t a complete unknown at the time, Willem Dafoe was nowhere near as well-known as he is today, but his strong performance as Eric Masters helped provide a big boost to his career. John Turturro also makes a memorable impression in one of his earliest roles as Masters’ sidekick, Carl Cody. I should also add that To Live and Die in L.A. contains one of the most shocking, unexpected moments that I can ever remember seeing in a film. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I’ll just mention that when this moment happens, you will most definitely NOT see it coming! However, it does perfectly symbolize the film’s bleak, cynical tone and I can see why it might have turned a lot of people off at the time this was released. I’m sure people would be more open to accepting a film like this today and that’s why I stated that To Live and Die in L.A. was somewhat ahead of is time in spite of some dated elements. There’s not much else I can say except that this movie is a criminally underrated classic and that all action fans should make it a point to check it out. In closing, I feel I should treat you to the music video for Wang Chung’s title song, “To Live and Die in L.A.”. If my review hasn’t put you in the mood to watch the movie, maybe this wonderful piece of eighties cheese will.