AVAILABLE ON DUAL FORMAT BLU-RAY AND DVD: NOW, from ARROW VIDEO
RUNNING TIME: 121 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Richard Chance and Jimmy Hart are US Secret Service agents assigned as counterfeiting investigators in its Los Angeles field office. Chance has a reputation for reckless behaviour, while Hart is three days away from retirement. Alone, Hart stakes out a warehouse in the desert thought to be a print house of counterfeiter Rick Masters. After Masters and Jack, his bodyguard, kill Hart, Chance explains to his new partner, John Vukovich, that he will take Masters down no matter what. While Vukovich wants to go by the book, Chance becomes increasingly reckless and unethical in his efforts to catch Masters….
The story goes that Joel Silver and Shane Black had trouble getting studios interested in the Lethal Weapon script because To Live And Die In L.A. flopped at the box office….and that would have been such a huge shame [okay, that franchise went downhill with each film but still….]. There are definitely some similarities between the two films, including sharing of the “I’m too old for this shit” line, but they aren’t that similar. To me, To Live And Die In L.A. plays like a combination of director William Friedkin’s earlier cop classic The French Connection and the Miami Vice TV series. In fact, I wasn’t too surprised to learn that the makers of the popular show tried to sue [though without success] the filmmakers for plagiarism. The film seems to have two somewhat conflicting aesthetics of grit and glossiness which make for a slightly awkward mix, and upon finally watching it I don’t think it’s quite the unsung classic it seems to be more and more regarded as, but it still has a lot to recommend it, such as its seemingly simple plot which actually has quite a few layers to it….and one of the greatest car chases ever done on film.
Friedkin was given former secret agent Gerald Petievich’s novel in manuscript form and immediately wanted to film it. He almost got a ten-film, $100 million deal with 20th Century Fox but when the studio was purchased by Rupert Murdoch, one of the financiers pulled the deal, so he took it to MGM. Friedkin retained the basis of the novel but added more action, though he and Petievich each claim they contributed more than the other person said they did. With only a $6 million budget to work with, the cast and crew [all non-union members] worked for low salaries. Gary Sinise was denied the part of Chance, but recommended William Petersen. Half a page into his reading, Friedkin told him he had the part. He then called brought fellow Chicago actor John Pankow to Friedkin and he got the part of Vukovich on the spot. The film was all shot on location, much of it in gang territory, and very quickly, Friedkin often using the first take, and often allowing for improvisation and shooting rehearsals. The airport prohibited Peterson from running along the top of the dividers between the terminal’s moving sidewalk as they felt that their insurance would not have covered him had he hurt himself, but he did it anyway and Friedkin told the airport officials that Peterson just got carried away and that they wouldn’t use the footage. Over $1 million dollars of counterfeit money was produced with three deliberate errors so that it could not be used outside the film, but some did leak out and the son of one of the crew members was caught trying to spend some. MGM asked for a less negative ending, which they shot but didn’t use.
Richard Chance is first seen, alongside his partner Jimmy Hart, trying to disarm an Islamic terrorist with a phone, but their attempts go wrong and he still blows himself up. Now one thing I really liked about this movie is that the good guys frequently get it wrong, like when supposedly super tough Chance, a daredevil who likes to bungie jump off bridges, gets bested by a prisoner who than escapes after beating him up. This is an idea taken to perhaps ludicrous, but to me quite logical, extremes near the end of the movie when our ‘heroes’ well and truly cock up. Anyway, after the terrorist scene we have our opening titles, which play under a montage of money being passed around and glossy shots of L.A., but of less glamorous, more run-down locales for a change. Hart is then shot dead by the counterfeiter Rick Masters and his aide. Masters is a most interesting bad guy. A frustrated painter who burns every picture he creates, he applies the same fastidiousness and artistry to producing fake money. There’s a really fascinating sequence where, for over five minutes, we watch him at his work. Actor Willem Dafoe was really making counterfeit notes while experts watched offscreen. Despite being a killer also, Masters is probably more likeable than Chance. He has a….well, you can’t really call her a girlfriend…but a woman called Ruth, a parolee whom Chance uses for information and sex. Their scenes together are really sad because Chance is so cold but she’s clearly fallen for him. At least Masters treats his woman with some warmth. In some ways Chance is like Martin Riggs, but what ‘s depicted as being heroic and amusing in that film is the complete opposite here, because this film takes place in a world closer to the real one.
In many ways the centre of the film is not Chance but his new partner John Vukovich. Chance is happy to break the law in his pursuit of Masters, and does so increasingly throughout the film, but we get the feeling that he’s hardly been ‘clean’ before. Vukovich though is a decent law-abiding citizen and the main hook of the story is the way he gradually becomes more and more corrupted until he’s no better than Chance, the character’s final scene, which is as cynical an ending as you could wish for in a film, being so cruel and so brilliant. His best moments are where he seems to be cracking up, notably after the film’s big car chase. Wouldn’t you also feel totally shaken and numb and sick if you’d been involved in such activity? Touches like this add a real feeling of authenticity to the film and distinguish it from the myriad of similar films that came out in the 1980’s. Action-wise To Live And Die In L.A. may disappoint some as it is content to give is just a few short bursts of running and shooting until that incredible chase….but I think that most viewers will say that it’s well worth the wait. As Chance drives his car over a train track just a couple of seconds before a train whizzes by, and then up the L.A. freeway the wrong way, it’s perhaps even more thrilling to watch today than it may have been in 1985 because these days they tend to use CGI a great deal in such scenes. And it’s also wonderful how it seems like it’s over….then starts up all over again!
The violence, though not dwelt upon, is bloody – this is one of those movies where, when somebody gets shot, the impact is usually far greater than just a little blood squib. Friedkin and Petievich obviously know that the ingredients of the story are largely cliched, and aren’t always great in writing dialogue, but do their best to make for this, do provide some decent twists and sometimes enjoy subverting some of our expectations. Masters appears to kiss a man who’s been performing in an interpretive play, and it seems like this he’s going to be another homosexual villain [which used to be quite common, though in todays’s PC world it seems to be the opposite], but then he takes his makeup off and it’s actually a woman. Visually the film has the prominent use of neon lighting, orange/red sunsets and backlit characters that you would probably expect, though it’s odd to have Friedkin adopt this pre-MTV, Tony Scott/Michael Bay-style approach and I’m not sure that it helps the film, though it doesn’t detract from it either, and some of the shots of people with their faces bathed in red look terrific. Technically, cinematographer Robbie Muller does a great job throughout, retaining a ‘rough and ready’ feel without lapsing into all that shakycam crap that too many modern filmmakers think is an essential ingredient in making films like this seem realistic. Instead, this film emphasises long takes which tend to follow characters and action around, and it works so much better.
Peterson seems rather too muted in many of his early scenes as Chance, but that was obviously a deliberate decision. Pankow is excellent throughout as he acts his character’s tragic journey, and Willem Dafoe is already an extremely good villain. Darlanne Fluegel shines too as Ruth; she’s very affecting and I could never figure out why this actress never really made it big [one of the delights of the extended Once Upon A Time In America was seeing more of her performance]. Wang Chun’s synthesiser/drum patterns and songs do immediately date the film, but not really to its detriment. Walking a fine line between archetypal 80’s trash and a compelling, intelligent cop drama, To Live And Die In L.A. is best seen as a corrective to most of those other police thrillers you’ve seen, telling us that the heroism of Riggs and Murtaugh, or Lowrey and Burnett, or any similar hero[s] you can think of, isn’t really heroism at all in the real world and can result in more mistakes than good results. And that’s why the ending, while it seemed to come out of nowhere at first, was exactly the right ending to have….though something’s bugging me about the very final shot. Flashback [in which case it actually makes no sense and contradicts film and story telling grammar]? Vision? A resurrection? One character now totally having totally become another? See if you can decide.
It probably won’t be a surprise for me to say that the movie looks amazing on Blu-ray, though of course I have no other point of reference. The colours are vivid, flesh tones look especially accurate and a slight softness appropriate to the age of the film is retained. Now for some reason MGM’s Region ‘A’ Blu-ray, while it retained the special features from the older DVD, put them all on another DVD. Fortunately Arrow have done it right and added some new stuff. While he does leave long gaps between talking, Friedkin’s commentary tracks are always good and this one is no exception, detailing the history of the production and Friedkin obviously proud of the film. Counterfeit World: The Making of To Live and Die in L.A is a great featurette and tells some great stories alongside showing some nice behind-the-scenes footage. The deleted scene, which shows Vukovich’s wife, is really good and Friedkin wishes he hadn’t cut it and says he wants to put it back in. Considering this is sourced from the DVD, one wonders why he didn’t put it into the Blu-ray version. The alternate ending is just terrible and thnakfully it wasn’t used. The new interviews are all worth sitting through because they only sometimes repeat stories [something which is unavoidable] and tell plenty of new ones. Peterson says that he didn’t know he was going to be driving against traffic until they begun to shoot the car chase! The interview with the stunt co-ordinator is especially noteworthy as it’s an area not often covered in home releases of movies. Overall, another great package which I can highly recommend!
*Brand new 4K restoration from the original 35mm negative supervised and approved by director William Friedkin
*High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentations
*Optional 5.1 Surround and 2.0 Stereo audio (with DTS-HD Master Audio and Uncompressed PCM on the Blu-ray)
*Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
*Audio commentary by director and co-writer William Friedkin
*Taking a Chance, a brand-new interview with actor William Petersen
*Doctor for a Day, a brand-new interview with actor Dwier Brown
*Renaissance Woman in L.A., a brand-new interview with Debra Feuer
*So In Phase: Scoring To Live and Die in L.A., a brand-new interview with composers Wang Chung
*Wrong Way: The Stunts of To Live and Die in L.A., a brand-new interview with stunt co-ordinator Buddy Joe Hooker
*Counterfeit World: The Making of To Live and Die in L.A., an archive featurette containing interviews with Friedkin, actors Petersen and Willem Dafoe, and others
*Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by the Twins of Evil
*FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Fully illustrated collector s booklet containing new writing by Anne Billson and contemporary coverage.