TO LIVE AND DIE IN LA B+
USA (116 mi) 1985 d: William Friedkin
Guess what, Uncle Sam don’t give a shit about your expenses. You want bread, fuck a baker. —Richard Chance (William Peterson)
If you didn’t know any better, you’d think this was a Michael Mann film, a gritty portrait of Los Angeles filled with a stylistic flourish from the exquisite cinematography of Robby Müller with gorgeous shots of the city at sunrise and dusk illuminated by a sheen of smog and a 1980’s Wang Chung soundtrack that gives the film a pulsating edge. Very much driven by a synthesized techno beat so prominently featured in FLASHDANCE (1983) and the Miami Vice TV series (1984 – 90), this is a hard hitting, adrenaline-laced cop drama where the cops straddle the same ethical line as the criminals, in fact they are mirror images of one another, oftentimes getting more caught up in the business than they’d prefer, usually driven by a manic personality that settles for nothing less than a full-out assault. Using a cast of relative unknowns, featuring two prominent Chicago actors who got their start in local community theater, this was William Peterson’s first starring movie role while John Pankow, whose older brother plays in the rock band Chicago, had worked earlier in Miami Vice. Both play FBI agents in the counterfeit division, Chance and Vukovich, where their boss is murdered when he gets too close to one operation, giving this a tone of revenge, where getting this guy becomes personal, using any means necessary to bring him down. Willem Dafoe is excellent as the cold-blooded killer and counterfeiter Rick Masters, a complete professional who carries out his business with icy control, whose creepiness becomes more accentuated through his eerie calm. He also has his hand in kinky sex and modern art, often blending the two, almost always with a gorgeous girl, Debra Feuer, who follows his every lead.
Shot all on location in some of the seedier sections of town, Friedkin offers a cynically realistic approach to the film noir crime thriller, using a near documentary style, but the characters are all outcasts, outlaws beyond the reach of the law and cops who think they are above the law, both living on the margins, creating a feeling of detachment and alienation. One of the most extraordinary scenes is watching Masters diligently working at his craft, printing counterfeit bills, step by step using his artistic skills with the meticulous precision of a Bach cantata, where his detailed professionalism is nothing less than impressive, offering a window to the audience into this highly skilled criminal enterprise. It’s interesting that Friedkin reveals so clearly what Chance is up against, as this is Peterson’s film, where he dominates the action sequences and all the build up to them, as he’s a man on a mission, an adrenaline junkie who’s not afraid to bungee jump off a bridge with a rope tethered to his foot, swinging just above the water’s edge, creating a rush of energy that he needs to make him feel alive. He also has a girl, Ruth (Darlanne Fluegel), an inmate out on parole working at a strip club where she hears things, where Chance uses her for sex and information, threatening to cut off her parole if she stops feeding him tips. His moral character is questionable, as he’s like a cowboy with an itchy trigger finger, obsessed with tracking down his man, where he doesn’t care what methods are used to pull it off. His partner Vukovich is more nervous about his full throttle, free-wheeling style, thinking it’s reckless and outside the bounds of department regulations, but it’s his partner, a guy you just don’t cross in police business, so he goes along with it, creating, in effect, a counterfeit persona.
The measure of an action thriller, of course, is the action, and this one features a doozy of a car chase, one precipitated by Chance’s dubious choice to carry out a robbery to raise the needed cash in an undercover sting operation that his own bureau won’t cover. What seemed like a sure bet turns into a sprawling mess, where they literally kidnap a guy for the contents of his briefcase. In perhaps the turning point in the film, they bring the guy to a freeway underpass to open the contents, but he hasn’t got the key, so in a fit of rage Chance repeatedly smashes the briefcase against the cement pylons only to discover they are taking rifle fire from the road above. This event seems to activate his hair trigger, clicking the on switch, as the ensuing car chase ends up as a hair-raising ride through a crowded warehouse district before ending up on the freeway going the wrong way, creating a tremendous logjam, not to mention a stockpile of cars smashing into one another. This is thrillingly photographed, slowly developing where initially you're not even aware it is a car chase before it kicks into high gear, where the action seems to symbolize Chance’s spiraling moral void, as the look into his eyes as he’s driving suggest the actions of a madman. Just as they think they might have gotten away, Frieidkin yet again defies all expectations by continuing the heist gone wrong theme, where the ramifications are endless, all spinning out of control, where the audience is treated to a visceral experience that again opens a window into this kind of dangerous world, where Vukovich especially continually sees his career and his life passing before his eyes during the final third of the film. This is a rare style of film in that it provides incidents of graphic nudity mixed with blunt trauma in such an entertaining style, which was highly unusual in its day. The counterfeit theme is intriguing as well, blurring the lines of moral corruption between the police and the criminals, where the Los Angeles police are notorious for their rampant abuse and misconduct, where it’s impossible to tell with the human eye just which cops and what pedestrians walking down the street are free of criminal interests and associations.