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Underrated Films presents: To Live and Die in L.A


After two legendary films, “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist,” William Friedkin exploded into the early ‘70s Hollywood scene as the hottest upstart not named Coppola. Two Oscar nominations, one of them a win for Best Director for “The French Connection,” not to mention the success and controversy “The Exorcist” gathered, Friedkin was what M. Night Shyamalan was in 1999 after “The Sixth Sense,” a new powerhouse filmmaker with everything going his way.

For Friedkin, however, it was difficult to recapture the level of excitement and interest in his later projects. “Sorcerer,” his re-imagination of the great Henri-Georges Clouzot's film “The Wages of Fear,” is a solid rendition of the original, but it lies under the radar of his own classics. “Cruising,” which found Al Pacino investigating a series of murders in New York's homosexual community, was met with mixed reviews and protest from the gay community for alleged stereotype defamation. For a director who was labeled a wunderkind by his peers and critics, an almost discarded Friedkin entered the ‘80s going back to the unforgiving, callous world of crime he visited a decade prior with Popeye Doyle.

“To Live and Die in L.A.” takes Friedkin to the streets of Los Angeles, were high fashion and social degradation are one in the same. William Petersen, in his first staring role, plays Richard Chance, a secret service agent with cowboy tendencies and little respect of the laws he's supposed to abide. His job takes him into different endeavors; one day he could be escorting the president of the United States, the other has him running around LAX pursuing a counterfeiter (John Turturro).

Chance becomes obsessed when he vows to capture Masters (Willem Dafoe), an eccentric money launderer who murders Chance's partner while investigating Master's hideout. Paired with a novice, by the book agent John Vukovich (John Pankow), Chance meets all the obstacles that prevent him from getting Masters with such disordinance, it is baffling that he isn't also a criminal.

In order for Chance and Vukovich to arrest Masters, they need to go undercover and gather $25,000 to deal a counterfeit job from Masters. The problem is that the FBI has no plans to fund Chance. Getting a tip from his dubious informant and lover Ruth Lanier (Darlanne Fluegel), Chance and Vulkovich apprehend a man to attain the amount.

To their chagrin, the agents are met with bullets from snipers on top of the sidewalks of the freeway. Friedkin, attempting to one-up his famous car-chase scene from “The French Connection,” has Chance driving forward AND backward in traffic jams and reservoirs. The exciting escape plan frees the agents from peril temporarily, but now having the FBI and Masters in their sights, both Chance and Vukovich are at risk of finding out the dire consequences of pushing the limits of fate.

This film is from 1985, and is styled similar to the decade's iconic TV series “Miami Vice” that it only needs Chance to walk around beating up bad guys with his sockless top-siders. Chance drives around the highlands of L.A. pondering while the synthesized beats of Wang Chung date the film quicker than anything Phil Collins composed for “Vice.”

Some of the scenes play out like ideas tossed in by a filmmaker who was losing his mind: in the scene where Chance confronts a terrorist on the rooftops of the hotel the President is staying in, you not only question how crazy a person has to be to strap themselves with dynamite to blow up the President, but how one attempts such feat by randomly jumping from the roof and exploding in mid-air.

I'm still a bit unclear as to who sent the snipers to shot at the agents, since that is never completely explained, or why is Vukovich able to keep his job after his involvement with Chance has him facing serious charges. Also, it is a bit peculiar how some characters abruptly change their personalities without any buildup. The film dances around the B-movie label embellished by a former A-list director on his last legs.

So, why is this movie underrated? Because Friedkin gives you all he has left and does it in such a merciless, gutting way that it is beautiful to behold. While “The French Connection” is methodical and precise, “To Live and Die in L.A.” is unrefined, rushed, and spontaneous. Yet it’s as uncompromising as his crime classic, and its outcome will stick with you.

The two leads, Chance and Masters, are rivals faced with the same dichotomy, both intensely drawn to taunt life or death as they have absconded the laws of man. Chance, who Petersen plays with a cool, rouge fervor, spends his leisure time jumping off bridges in a makeshift bungee cord. Masters, with Defoe adding an androgynous quality, burns his self-portrait.

Both men believe to have a grip on their women, but aren’t aware that these women have an agenda of their own. Even Masters' lawyer Bob Grimes (Dean Stockwell) is also council for Vukovich, an example how these men meddle on both sides of the law. Chance and Masters are consumed by the authority of a badge or a gun - perhaps the only way they can sustain their superficial relationships.

Friedkin is also intrigued with counterfeiting. He follows Masters into his warehouse outside the city limits. Inside his lair, Masters makes counterfeit bills, each step is so calculated it develops like a tutorial on money laundering (Masters' work is so accurate that Friedkin remembers that production of the movie was almost shut down by the police.) Masters is a freelance businessman who discusses his services the same way a broker would discuss stocks. Friedkin grounds illicit trade and sees it part of a capitalist culture that supplies the demands of the highest bidder, regardless of the industry.

The director is equally fascinated by what drives a man to pursue law enforcement. In Chance, Friedkin tries to understand how someone can go from escorting the leader of the free world to going into downtown cafeterias and strip clubs looking for clues. Chance, like his namesake, is a gambler who willfully puts his life as collateral without caution or thought. Yet this conduct manages to seduce Ruth and Vukovich into following Chance's schemes.

Friedkin appears to conclude that justice is far from the reason somebody decides to lead this life. The rush of defying the conventions of right and wrong blinds a man from the strong probability that his friends or his own doom could come, like an unexpected cool breeze of a California night, swiftly and indifferently. –JR

P.S: If you get your hands on the special edition DVD of “To Live and Die in L.A.,” take a look at the alternative ending. Friedkin was asked to shoot this version since producers thought that the original version would pull audiences back. Friedkin defied his producers and went with his gut. The movie wasn't a hit, but whatever staying power the film has is purely Friedkin's credit.




Directed by: William Friedkin
Written by: Gerald Petievich (novel), William Friedkin
Cast: William Petersen, Willem Dafoe, John Pankow

Source of the Bitter: John Rojas

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