' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)

Friday, August 11, 2023

Friday's Old Fashioned: To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)

This review was originally written ten years ago and has been amended and reposted in honor of its director William Friedkin who died this week at 87. 

With blood red and neon green opening credits, an omnipresent Wang Chung score, and leading man William Petersen sporting so many undone buttons on his shirt in one scene that when he throws a leather jacket on and zips it up halfway, you’d be hard pressed to tell he even is wearing a shirt, William Friedkin infuses his 1985 crime thriller “To Live and Die in L.A.” with all kinds of 80s cool. Yet, it still pulses with existential anguish reminiscent of the director’s 70s classics, the Best Picture winning “The French Connection” (1971) and the forgotten, resurrected “Sorcerer” (1977), as if that so-called shining city on the hill of the Me Decade was merely a mirage. The obsessive futility of those movies is present in “To Live and Die in L.A.’s” plot and characters but also in its air, especially the lead performance of a then-unknown Petersen, translating 80s cool into something wrenchingly ice cold.

Petersen is Richard Chance, a Secret Service agent in the Treasury Department who is assigned to the Los Angeles counterfeiting division where his longtime partner (Michael Greene) is killed by Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe), an illegal moneymaker and contemporary painter, an artist in each trade, underlined in the expressive way Friedkin lingers over making phony bucks. Played by Dafoe with maximum androgynous pizzazz, at one point we are deliberately made to think Masters has just made out with a man until “he” is revealed as a “she”, a cheeky shot across the moussed bows of so many 80s televangelists if also a cheeky evocation of his forgery kind of life, putting a poetic dot on the movie’s topsy-turviness. Indeed, when Chance and his new partner Vukovich (John Pankow) go undercover to try and catch their prey, the devious counterfeiter demands front payments of real cash so exorbitant the lawmen don’t have the means to cover the asking price, causing them to break bad by pulling a heist to score the cash to keep their case going. 

If Vukoich follows a more traditional character arc from good to bad, Chance is more emblematic of “To Live and Die in L.A.” turns counterfeiting into an overriding metaphor, a lawman who does not simply break the law to get his man but a lawman who uses the law to live out his own hellbent daredevil tendencies, evoked in a BASE jumping scene, and wryly rewiring the standard-issue justice for his partner plotline as so much motivational b.s. Through this lens, the movie’s famous car chase, through daytime L.A., ramming into innocent vehicles right and left, putting blameless citizens in harm’s way, is not a case of implausibility but a logical extension of the character. When Chance starts driving against traffic, there is tension but zeal too, a pulse-pounding carnival ride on a California freeway, woo-hoo, let’s go. 

If Chance emits shades of “The French Connection’s” Popeye Doyle, the latter was also only what he was going after. Chance, on other hand, has a relationship with Ruth Lanier (Darlanne Fluegel), a parolee and an informant with whom he’s having a relationship. Well, relationship is pushing it. They have sex and the morning after when she wonders aloud what might happen if she stopped giving him information, he replies, plainly, “I’d have your parole revoked.” That’s the entire film, really, a descent into a gaudy but morally desolate L.A. where even the good guys turn out to be bad guys, not an especially ground-breaking revelation, true, but one rarely painted with such cruel pizazz. One glorious passage of dialogue speaks straight to the movie’s intent. 

Referring to something she recently read, Ruth dreamily offers: “It talked about how the eyes are the stars of God. I think that’s true. Don’t you?” Chance’s monotone reply doesn’t even come with a facial expression. “No,” he says. “I don’t.”

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