Richard Chance (William Petersen) is a Secret Service agent whose partner Jim Hart (Michael Greene) is getting tired of this profession. One night when they are guarding a V.I.P. Chance notices a suspicious figure at the end of the corridor and goes to investigate - rightly so, as it turns out, because the man is a terrorist suicide bomber determined to blow up the hotel. Through a mixture of luck and skill, the two agents see to it that the bomber falls off the roof and his explosives are detonated killing nobody but him, but the ordeal has taken its toll on Hart and he announces his retirement...
And we all know what happens to you if you're a movie cop who announces his retirement, don't we? That's right, unless you're Danny Glover in a Lethal Weapon movie you might as well have put a loaded gun to your head, and so it is with Hart in To Live and Die in L.A., who spends his last three days on the force investigating a counterfeiting operation and winds up murdered by the criminals. They are led by scene-stealing Willem Dafoe, playing artist turned illegal money maker Rick Masters, who makes an instant enemy of Chance after blowing his partner's brains out with a shotgun, but there's a lot of that in this film, one of the most violent cop thrillers of the eighties.
It was looking like director and co-writer William Friedkin had wanted to reinvent the genre for the eighties in a way that he had done for the seventies with his classic The French Connection, except there was a small problem with that: Michael Mann had already done it with his hit television series Miami Vice. Mann was not best pleased when he saw this effort, believing that Friedkin had ripped off his whole act, but as there was no shortage of other filmmakers, lesser ones too, who had done the same, it's not surprising that his case went nowhere. What To Live and Die had in its arsenal was a more bloodthirsty style, although style was definitely the order of the day.
Yet the strange thing is, the filmmakers didn't appear to like their characters very much, fine if the characters were the bad guys, but more problematic if they were the goodies. Or at least, they didn't mind if the audience didn't like them too much, as Chance as played by future CSI star (and Mann's Manhunter star!) Petersen is a real poseur, to use the eighties word, a man who obviously thinks so much of himself that he's willing to work outside the law he is meant to be upholding, and drawn into a downward spiral of his own arrogant methods at crimefighting - he's actually inept at times. It could be that he was simply matching his gleaming, glossy surroundings, but he harks back to the less than lovely cops of the previous decade in his deportment.
Friedkin sustained his film with a kineticism which sweeps you along even as you notice there's no one really to sympathise with, as everyone appears to be on the make, from the telling opening titles to the major players in the story. Every so often there will be a pursuit of some kind, often on foot, but another link to The French Connection arises with one of the great car chases of the era which sees Chance and his antsy new partner Vukovich (John Pankow) stealing a money belt of fake bills from under the noses of the bad guys, but having trouble getting away with it when the hunters become the hunted. Nobody who has seen it will be able to put that chase out of their mind when this film comes up, but there was a further ace up the movie's sleeve with a truly surprising ending, assuredly not something that would ever have happened on Miami Vice and underlining the shiny cynicism of the piece. The surface gloss is so absorbing it's easy to forget that To Live and Die in L.A. was a hard film to warm to. Music by Wang Chung, and doesn't it sound it.
American writer/director who has struggled throughout his career to escape the legacy of two of his earliest films. Debuted in 1967 with the Sonny & Cher flick Good Times, but it was the gripping French Connection (1971) and phenomenonally popular The Exorcist (1973) that made Friedkin's name and influenced a whole decade of police and horror films. Since then, some of Friedkin's films have been pretty good (Sorcerer, the controversial Cruising, To Live and Die in L.A., Blue Chips, Bug, Killer Joe), but many more (The Guardian, Jade, Rules of Engagement) have shown little of the director's undoubtable talent.
About the only remarkable thing are the unconventional fates of the maverick, loose-cannon cop and his by-the-book partner. Otherwise this is symptomatic of its era: all flash and no substance, and just a wee bit camp. That score is positively surreal.
8 Mar 2011
I should have mentioned the camp, especially that scene where the three leads strip off for some manly exercise and sauna-ing. But there was a lot of camp about in the action movies of this era, even more looking back on them.