This is my contribution to this year's White Elephant Blogathon.
To Live and Die in L.A. announces itself as the quintessential ‘80s action movie in its first five minutes. Secret Service agents Richard Chance and Jimmy Hart (William Petersen and Michael Greene) have just foiled a terrorist attack in a hotel where President Reagan is giving a speech. After throwing a suicide bomber off the hotel’s roof, Hart remarks that “I’m getting too old for this shit.” I don’t know if this is the first use of this line, but it predates Lethal Weapon by over a year. So it may not surprise you to learn that Hart, on the trail of counterfeiter Eric Masters (Willem Dafoe), is killed two days before his retirement, or that Chance becomes obsessed with catching Masters and avenging his partner. This is the stuff of every action movie parody of the last 25 years, but much of the fun of To Live and Die in L.A. is that it doesn’t know how much of a product of its time it is. The film’s heavy use of cop movie clichés before they were clichés and general Eighties-ness dates it, and yet it doesn’t suffer as a result; it’s an enjoyably tense, overheated thriller, very much of its time but still terrifically entertaining today.
The film spends much of its running time underlining the similarities between Chance and Masters, both single-mindedly driven by their work and sleeping with the women they also use for information. In its interest in the connection between criminal and pursuer, and in its flashy visual style, To Live and Die in L.A. is reminiscent of the work of Michael Mann, particularly Miami Vice and his early films (Peterson’s next film would be Manhunter). But director William Friedkin brings to the film a strong sense of location, an eye for idiosyncratic detail and a strong underlying sense of moral ambiguity; the result is a procedural that is equal parts ‘80s slickness and ‘70s naturalism. Much of the film was shot in, real, rough neighborhoods in South Central and East L.A.; as with Friedkin’s The French Connection, the lived-in authenticity of the locations contributes hugely to the believability and suspense of the story. The cinematographer is frequent Wim Wenders/Jim Jarmusch collaborator Robby Muller, and the look of the film is reminiscent of Muller’s then-recent work on Wenders’ Paris, Texas, lighting warehouses, strip clubs and dive bars with hot pinks and greens; it’s a flamboyant film, but still purposefully rough around the edges.
Friedkin sometimes overreaches with the film’s grittiness; many moments are less gritty than coarse or pungent, and it sometimes feels like Friedkin is wallowing in the film’s sleazy atmosphere. The profane tough-guy dialogue often feels both inauthentic and puerile. There are multiple, lingering shots of peoples’ heads being blown apart. And the film’s female characters are one-dimensional sex objects even for this kind of movie – they exist solely to advance the plot, bare their breasts and screw the leads. The crudeness wasn’t a deal-breaker for me, and it does allow for rare equal-opportunity smut in the form of full frontal nudity from Peterson (Gus Grissom’s more of a grower than a shower). But as with much of Friedkin’s work, it does feel like he’s trying to have it both ways, rubbing our noses in it while suggesting a high-minded justification that he never quite pays off. That’s not to say that To Live and Die in L.A., which opens with audio of President Reagan declaring his intention to protect American citizens from new taxes, isn’t commenting on the ultra-materialistic time at which it was made. It’s just not quite as deep about it as Friedkin thinks it is.
Still, Friedkin’s strengths as a filmmaker have always been more formalist than personal, and To Live and Die in L.A. has an impressively nihilistic, postmodern tone punctuated by memorable action set-pieces. The wrong-side-of-the-road chase is justifiably famous, and an earlier foot chase through an airport deserves to be. Peterson is compelling in the kind of role that would make him famous, and Dafoe is mesmerizing as an unusually honest criminal – it’s easy to see why this was a breakthrough role for him. And Friedkin’s lack of interest in predictable structure leads to a climactic development that is pleasurably surprising. And while, if I was Friedkin, I wouldn’t have personally gone with a wall-to-wall Wang Chung soundtrack, I didn’t exactly mind either. It’s a good movie, the second in a row I’ve been assigned for the White Elephant Blog-a-Thon. And that makes me feel twice as guilty about the movie I’ve subjected someone else to this year. Muah ha ha…