To Live and Die in L.A (1985)

To-Live-and-Die-in-LA

‘Guess what, Uncle Sam don’t give a shit about your expenses. You want bread, fuck a baker!’

This charming little bit of advice comes from To Live and Die in L.A’s ‘hero’ to the informant on probation he’s just slept with. Yeah, he’s a bit of a shit. He’s also played by Billy Fuckin’ Petersen! Oh wait, sorry – William L. Petersen, as he was known back in the 80’s days. Petersen is the none-too subtly named Richard Chance, and he’s the ultimate reckless cop. Riggs ain’t got shit on this guy. I mean, Riggs is crazy, but he was essentially a nice guy. Chance is hotheaded, selfish, harsh and irresponsible. He wants to take down the bad guys, but, in his own words, ‘doesn’t give a shit’ how he does it. He also makes mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes in this film. That’s what makes William Friedkin’s classic thriller (based on a novel by former secret service agent Gerald Petievich) so thrilling – it’s an off the chain, unpredictable ride that hits the ground running and doesn’t stop until the dark conclusion. It also screams 1980s to breaking point. I mean, the opening credits are in orange and green for God’s sake! Plus the font is so LARGE that the screen can only fit ONE or TWO words of the TITLE at a time. Plus, in any other film, a scene where a suicide bomber is yanked off the top of a building (and explodes mid-air) would probably the most shocking scene, but here that happens in the first three minutes and we’re already moving on straight after. No time to lose, that’s Friedkin’s approach.

I suppose on the surface it’s another cop thriller (one character even says ‘I’m getting too old for this shit’!), and the plot is essentially just about two secret service agents trying to take down a master counterfieter, but there’s a wild streak coursing through its veins – the characters are not stock types, they’re real – they fuck up, but they’re also surprisingly resourceful and clever. I was constantly hooked and intrigued, wondering what was going to happen next. This all reaches fever pitch in the film’s final half-hour, which I won’t spoil, but I promise you that there is a car chase that outdoes the one Friedkin delivered for The French Connection. It’s a blinder.

That’s the big showstopping moment, but there are lots and lots of other highlights, including an extended bit near the start where we see Willem Dafoe’s counterfeiter on the job, creating his fake dosh, making his phoney dollar bills look as convincing as possible. Not many thrillers of this era would take the time to show us stuff like this, and real counterfeiters were consulted to make this scene as real as possible. There’s are some cracking foot chases, including one in an airport (which pissed off airport security because Petersen wasn’t supposed to jump on the platform dividing the moving travelators but did it anyway), some great heated confrontations between not just good guys and bad guys, but also between good guys and good guys as well as bad guys and bad guys.

The violence is often sudden, messy and shocking – Friedkin seems to favour gun shots to the FACE, the sick puppy. There are a few surprise moments which are unparalleled for the genre. No wonder an alternative ending was recommended by the studio (you can see it on the Region 1 DVD, and it’s crap) because the one we got is one of the most uncompromising you’ll see. I won’t spoil anything, but full props to Friedkin for having the nerve to see the film’s vicious streak through to its logical conclusion. The performances, from Petersen and Dafoe intense leads to John Pankow’s frustrated, desperate partner and John Turturro’s scumbag cash mule, are vivid and visceral, as is Friedkin’s depiction of L.A, which I suspect I suspect the Grand Theft Auto games were influenced by, especially the most recent instalment.

Boosting things and then some is Wang Chung’s brilliant soundtrack – they’d already scored a hit in the charts with ‘Dance Hall Days’, and Friedkin’s decision to have them score the film was a genius move, much like his hiring of Tangerine Dream for Sorcerer. When their ‘City of Angels’ piece comes in over the sunset-hued main credits/crime montage, the effect is thrilling. Properly pounding (it’s all about that bass) and exciting, it sets the scene perfectly. Similarly, the use of ‘Wait’ over the end credits as the camera takes to the road and heads out of the city is pretty damned epic. And who doesn’t love that title theme? If you don’t, then I can only wonder why (in L.A/To Live and Die in L.A). Having the soundtrack steeped heavily in synth pop definitely makes it a product of its time, but instead of feeling dated, the film feels like a snapshot, one of the key, iconic films of the 80’s.  Saying that, I can’t imagine a moment where a sleazy creep describes the weather as ‘groovy’ would have worked in any time period – maybe Summer 1967. This line always gets a laugh. Always.

I love this film – it’s from a major studio, but it has the reckless, edgy feel of an independent, and further proof that there’s far more to Friedkin than those two massive films he made in the 70s.

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