On DVD/Blu-ray – Review: To Live and Die in LA (1985)
by NIR SHALEV
US Secret Service agent Richard Chance (William L. Petersen) is on the hunt for painter/professional money counterfeiter Eric Masters (a young Willem Dafoe) because Masters had Chance’s partner brutally murdered. But the cliché of “the cop that wants to avenge his partner’s death” is quickly subsumed once we realize the type of world that this film inhabits. It’s a counterfeit world, filled with counterfeit relationships, counterfeit jobs, and a superficial materialistic world.
Chance is given a second partner, a much younger and far more straight-laced, inexperienced one; John Vukovich (John Pankow). Together they follow clues and perform stakeouts, while Chance, on occasion, visits his beautiful blonde CI (confidential Informant) for information that she gathers from the streets. All seems well and good until the audience really gets a chance to understand Chance. He’s some piece of work: he’s abusive to everyone around him, most especially his CI, whom he threatens to never pay and possibly throw back into the slammer; he’s an adrenaline junkie; he thinks with his guts rather than his brains; and he’s a terrible risk taking thrill seeker. But at the end of the day he gets the job done.
Petersen delivers a dark, brave performance here and we don’t entirely like the character of Chance. We’re not even supposed to. Still he’s the hero of the story and we follow him everywhere that he goes so we can watch as he abuses, frightens, and beats people, and even commits greatly illegal acts just to get the job done.
The film’s first act is a procedural. Through Masters’ point of view it showcases how money is counterfeited and laundered, how he’s connected, and how he makes real money back. It also showcases how he deals with rotten situations. He’s cool, suave, and collected. He also kills when necessary. The film pits him as a worthy adversary to Chance. And through Chance’s point of view, the film showcases how a US Secret Service Agent (under the thumb of the US Treasury Department) foils criminals’ plans and apprehends them.
The film’s second and third acts further develop the individual, daily procedures of the agents and the criminals, with striking, realistic detail, and also draw Masters and Chance closer together. There’s also one of the greatest car chases in cinema history to hurl our fearless heroes towards the third and final act.
To Live and Die in L.A. is a film that tackles many themes, most especially those of cause and consequences, and that blurry line that lies between being a good guy and a bad guy. That line is so thin and out of focus here that Chance doesn’t seem to see it, and we are presented with a detailed study of the similarities between the jobs of cops and criminals. This is a character and plot driven thriller that holds nothing back. Even though it is a visually colorful film, all of the happenings in it are dark in nature and violent. This is a bloody film, filled with terrific twists and an amazingly shocking third act. It presents writer/director William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist, Killer Joe) as a force to be reckoned with.
Friedkin definitely had plenty of great moments in the sun during the 1970s and 1980s. TLADILA is a smaller, lesser known film that truly demands resurgence. We see federal agents steal real money in order to buy fake money and bust a counterfeiter; we see several relationships that are also counterfeit in nature, as presented by the third act that wraps everything up; and we see a superficial, materialistic world that preaches that whatever’s on the surface should not be taken at face value.
This is a small masterpiece that came out of and still exists, in one way or another, in the ‘80s, and that should have made a star out of William Petersen. I believe that personal reasons have benched Petersen’s will to become a Hollywood star but films like this and Michael Mann’s terrific Manhunter (1986) are proof that he definitely was and still is an excellent actor.
Watch TLADILA and witness a thriller unlike any you’ve ever seen, necessary cliches aside. You’ll love the look of it, you’ll love its soundtrack (designed by Wang Chung), and you’ll love its story. All of the loose ends are wrapped up and all of the characters are developed. What more could one want from a good thriller?
The special features include an Audio Commentary by William Friedkin; Counterfeit World: The Making of To Live and Die in L.A.; Alternate Ending Featurette; Delete Scene Featurette; Stills Gallery; and Theatrical Trailers.
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