To Live and Die in L.A. at 35: An Underrated Masterpiece

Veteran director William Friedkin has made over a dozen feature films throughout his illustrious career spanning more than 40 years. But it was the early ’70s that defined his works, with then-thirtysomething William Friedkin delivered not one but two career-defining masterpieces. And those two masterpieces in question included The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973). The former, of course, famously won him an Oscar for Best Director. However, his subsequent works were no match with the two aforementioned films from both critical and financial perspectives.

During the 1980s, he made four feature films and one of them included To Live and Die in L.A. Released in 1985 with little fanfare, the movie was supposed to mark Friedkin’s triumphant return to the familiar territory. The kind of gritty crime film — read: The French Connection — that put him in the Hollywood map in the first place. While most critics loved it, the movie wasn’t big enough of a hit at the time of its release. It did, however, recoup its US$6 million budget with US$17.3 million in total box-office grosses.

For one thing, I did expect a French Connection-like vibe when I first watched To Live and Die in L.A. decades ago. Other than the thrillingly-staged car chase (we get to that later), I personally found the movie was strangely cold and detached. It did, however, grew on me as I rewatched the movie a couple of times over the years and eventually appreciated William Friedkin’s overall direction.

Willem Dafoe as counterfeiter Eric Masters in "To Live and Die in L.A." (1985)

The story, which follows two Secret Service agents (William Petersen’s Richard Chance and John Pankow’s John Vukovich) determined to apprehend a wanted counterfeiter (Willem Dafoe’s Eric Masters), could have easily gone the tried-and-true route commonly seen in many Hollywood crime thrillers.

But Friedkin, who also co-adapted Gerald Petievich’s 1984 novel of the same name alongside former Secret Service agent-turned-novelist himself, aren’t just content to sticking the usual formula. In other words, you won’t find anything predictable or straightforward about the characters and the story inhabited in To Live and Die in L.A.

Pessimism and moral grey areas play a huge part in this movie, complete with largely unlikeable characters that refused to settle down for the typical good vs evil storytelling approach. William Petersen’s Richard Chance is more of an anti-hero protagonist who doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty. Even if it means breaking the law all for the sake of bringing down Eric Masters at whatever cost necessary.

At one point, he persuades his partner John Vukovich to “rob” a man carrying a US$50,000 cash so they can use part of the money to pay Masters an upfront for printing US$1 million worth of counterfeit bills (both of them go undercover as Palm Springs bankers). It supposed to be an easy job and so that’s what Richard Chance felt overly confident about it, only to find himself and his partner landing into more troubles than they originally anticipated. The blatant act of desperation that occurred between these two characters pushing their limits too far is engagingly told from Friedkin’s depraved perspective. And for that, William Petersen does a good job portraying such a conflicted anti-hero character. It was only his second (after Michael Mann’s Thief in 1981) and first leading role and he has already proved his worth as a promising Hollywood star-in-the-making. Too bad his film career never really took off, even though he discovered then-newfound fame in the television when he appeared in the popular long-running CSI series as Gil Grissom.

Willem Dafoe is worth mentioning as well, who deliver solid antagonist role of Eric Masters. His character is a perfect contrast against Chance’s reckless and aggressive type of a Secret Service agent. Here, Masters is a smooth operator who seemingly has everything under control. He is even dedicated to his craft to the point where Friedkin showcases an elaborate counterfeiting process in meticulous details. The scene itself is fascinating enough to watch. Mind you, this is only one of Dafoe’s earliest roles and he has already proven himself the kind of character actor synonymous with portraying antagonists.

The famous car chase scene in "To Live and Die in L.A." (1985)

To Live and Die in L.A. is also a cinematic triumph on the technical side, notably the aforementioned car chase. The chase itself, which rivalled the one seen in Friedkin’s own French Connection, is one of those perfect examples on how to stage such a setpiece. It is both thrilling, visceral and intense with Friedkin’s technical know-how and camera placements that make you felt like you are part of the chase. The chase, which climaxes with Richard Chance boldly zigzagging his car while evading oncoming traffic on the wrong side of the freeway, is one impressive technical marvel even until today. But what makes the car chase sequence such a palpable experience is the emotional connection that Friedkin successfully incorporated into his characters. He shows us the panic and frustration seen in both Richard Chance and John Vukovich, with the latter even has his breathing sound amplified.

Finally, To Live and Die in L.A. is notable for Wang Chung’s (of “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” and “Dance Hall Days” fame) new-wave soundtrack that brings a unique 1980s characteristic into the movie. It’s almost as if Friedkin is emulating Michael Mann’s Miami Vice-like vibe and it works well enough. At times, the movie does feel like a time capsule made specifically for the era but it’s hardly a dated one. I would say it’s more of a one-of-a-kind effort that Friedkin has a field day experimenting a blend of 1970s-style gritty crime thriller into a stylised, sun-baked ’80s movie template.