To Live and Die in L.A.
September 30, 2002
Starring: William L. Petersen, Willem Dafoe, John Pankow, Debra Feuer, John Turturro, Darlanne Fluegel, Dean Stockwell, Steve James, Robert Downey Sr., Michael Greene, Christopher Allport, Jack Hoar, Valentin de Vargas, Dwier Brown, Michael Chong, ,
To Live and Die in L.A. was a film ahead of its time. When it was released in 1985, it failed to connect with a mainstream audience that was put off by its amoral, unlikable characters and downbeat, nihilistic ending. What did people expect from the same man who brought them the equally uncompromising The French Connection in 1974? William Friedkin’s film has long been out of print on VHS and so MGM’s new special edition DVD is exactly what fans of this influential crime thriller have been waiting for.
Richard Chance (Petersen) is a hot shot Secret Service Agent whose partner is brutally murdered days before retirement by Rick Masters (Dafoe), a ruthless counterfeiter that the agents had been closing in on for months. Chance takes on a new partner (Pankow) and right from the start lays down the ground rules: he is going to do anything and everything to bring Masters down—even if it means breaking the law.
At the time the film was made, William Petersen was a theatre actor. To Live and Die in L.A. was his first feature film and, along with Manhunter (1986), was to establish his reputation in Hollywood. Sadly, both films tanked at the box office but have since gone on to become critically respected and developed their own dedicated followings. Petersen plays Chance as an amoral adrenaline junkie who could easily be a criminal like Masters—which is why he is able to catch him. There is a kamikaze-like air to Chance, like he has some kind of suicidal death wish. He pushes himself and those around him to the limit and Petersen perfectly nails this intensity.
Willem Dafoe was also just starting off his movie career. He had done only a couple of films and brought the right amount of cold detachment to his character. Masters is an efficient criminal who perfectly internalizes his emotions making him incredibly hard to read—ideal for his chosen profession.
After a lull in his filmmaking career, Friedkin came back with a vegeance with this movie. He upped the ante established with The French Connection by creating an even more intense, a harder-edged and more visceral crime thriller. Sure, the screenplay is riddled with cliches—the loose cannon agent and the partner who is killed only days before he retires—but Friedkin makes it all seem fresh and exciting because he believes in the material completely and goes for it all the way down the line.
Visceral is the best word to describe the action sequences in To Live and Die in L.A. Not content with having created one of the best car chase sequences ever committed to film, with The French Connection, Friedkin managed to surpass it with an exciting car chase sequence in his new movie that starts off dangerous and exciting and quickly shifts gears into a hellish, white-knuckled intense ride that truly has to be seen to be believed. Even though it defies any kind of rational logic, it is still one hell of an action set piece that has yet to be equaled (although, some of the car chase sequences in Ronin come close).
For a film that is almost 20 years old, MGM has assembled a small but impressive collection of extras. Director William Friedkin provides an informative audio commentary that, like his films, pulls no punches. He goes into detail about the world of counterfeiting and the Secret Service. He also talks about the casting of much of the principal cast. He saw William Petersen perform on stage and cast him without a screen test (virtually unheard of at the time). Friedkin also provides very observant comments. For example, he compares John Turturro to Peter Lorre as two actors with very distinctive and unusual looks and speech patterns. For those who enjoyed his commentary on The French Connection DVD, this new track is a must-listen.
“Counterfeit World: ‘The Making of To Live and Die in L.A.’” is a wonderful retrospective look at how the movie was made. There is some excellent archival, behind-the-scenes footage of Friedkin and his cast in action. The veteran director talks about how he wanted to make an independent film—fast and loose, with a low budget and done all on location. Fans are in for a real treat as the fantastic airport foot chase between Petersen and Turturro is discussed, as is the famous car chase on the Los Angeles freeway. This featurette is crammed with tons of anecdotes and new interviews with Petersen, Pankow and Dafoe.
Also included is an alternate ending that the studio forced Friedkin to shoot because they didn’t like his original downbeat ending. The studio liked the new ending but Friedkin and his cast did not, so he (wisely) decided to opt for his original ending.
There is also a deleted scene that fleshed out Pankow’s character a bit more. This is actually a decent bit of footage and Friedkin candidly regrets having cut it and claims that if he could, he would have put it back into the film.
Rounding out the extras are a still gallery and a theatrical trailer.
To Live and Die in L.A. was William Friedkin’s last great film. He has shown the occasional glimmer of brilliance (most notably with The Hunted) but has failed to deliver anything on the level of his 1985 film. However, his influence can be felt in recent films, like Narc (2003), which present a gritty world filled with morally questionable characters. MGM has produced an excellent DVD with a stunning transfer (including a new 5.1 surround soundtrack) and a solid collection of extras that should please fans of this crime thriller masterpiece.