Release: 21st November 2016
Format: BR / DVD
When his partner is murdered just days before retirement, Secret Service Agent Richard Chance (William Petersen, Manhunter) begins an obsessive hunt for his killer counterfeiter and all-round psychopath Eric Masters, played by Willem Dafoe at his villainous prime.
When discussing Oscar winning director William Friedkin, it seems obligatory to choose from one of the following three statements, depending upon his latest release.
- No one does violence quite as visceral as Bill Friedkin
- No one balances nihilism and redemption quite like Bill Friedkin
- If you want an outstanding car chase, look no further than Bill Friedkin
- After The Exorcist, you’d think Bill Friedkin would struggle to shock audiences
For the purposes of reviewing To Live And Die In L.A., let’s go with option C. Because, whether you want to admit it or not, Richard Chance tearing the wrong way down a Californian freeway while being pursued by what seems to be the entire populous of, as it turns out, the FBI, might well be the best car chase in cinema history; The French Connection be damned!
Friedkin is a messy storyteller. Not in the sense that his films are poorly structured, but rather his penchant for chaos and immediacy. The not-so-subtle surname of Chance sums William Petersen’s protagonist up perfectly. This is a film about a man who lives so close to the edge, he might actually need wings to stay alive. From his recreational bungee jumping to his rapid descent into devil may care approach to policing, there is every possibility that Richard Chance might be the quintessential Friedkin hero. It is no wonder then that Friedkin seems so deft at handling what could potentially be the third best film he ever made (Pazuzu and Popeye naturally claiming spots one and two).
It seems like an odd compliment to offer a film the bronze medal, but when you consider that Friedkin’s filmography include the likes of Sorcerer, Killer Joe, Rules of Engagement and Cruising, it’s a solid affirmation. To Live And Die In L.A. is a perfect storm of talent, time and narrative, that make it seem like a product of its era, but also something that could easily transcend generations. We talk of Tony Soprano, Walter White, Mic Mackey and Jimmy McNulty as some of the greatest characters of the 20th Century, but is Richard Chance not just a little bit of them all? He is gregarious, determined, hungry, dangerous and ever-so morally ambiguous. This is a man who sleeps with informants, threatens witnesses and emotionally torments his squeaky clean partner; all the while breaking his neck to catch Willem Dafoe’s wispy bad guy, Masters (another rampant example of name influencing character). You’ll see such a model of this personality pop-up again and again in cinema’s future (I’m looking at you Point Break).
But To Live And Die In L.A is not all roses. Granted it does look great, but it doesn’t have the iconic imagery of Friedkin’s other prodigious works (actually, the whole Geisha snog scene is pretty striking). The plot is a little contorted in places, and Masters is not the most imposing of antagonists. As an audience we are implored to feel Chance’s frustration with the system rather than take a more neutral stance on his decline, and this makes his journey a little less nuanced. Debra Feuer as Bianca and Darlanne Fluegel’s Ruth are relatively interchangeable, which may be intentional – a mirror between good guy and bad – but it speaks clearly of a time when female characters were terribly underdeveloped. Then there is the score. Even now, it is hard to decide whether Wang Chung were a good choice or not.
There is a lot to love about To Live And Die In L.A, but also a number of things that date it too much. As a one-two punch between this and Manhunter, William Petersen pretty much cornered the market in gritty cop thrillers of the 80s. It would take Friedkin a little while to reach such heights again, but when you full stop a great run of movies in such a way, there is very little to complain about.
Film Grade: B
All the major runners and riders get some solid Interview time here. Peterson and Buddy Joe Hooker provide some of the better anecdotes, while Debra Feuer actually uses the word “mulatto” which is akin to hearing your granddad refer to “coloured’s”; so there’s some inadvertent comedy for you.
Counterfeit World is a previously released making of that covers a lot of ground, while the Alternative Ending thankfully remained just that. One Deleted Scene offers Doc a powerful bit of mania, and the Radio Spot is actually a wonderful bit of audio advertising. But as you’d expect it is William Friedkin’s Commentary that steals the show. For those who have not had the pleasure of reading his autobiography ‘The Friedkin Connection’, the commentary here is a great initiation into the film’s creation and the director’s process.
Features Grade: B
Great cinema presented in the best possible way, and loving curated with great supplementary material.