To Live and Die in LA is director William Friedkin firing on all cylinders. It is a time capsule of the mid 80s, complete with a pitch perfect soundtrack from Wang Chung, and fluorescent title cards. Crime dramas are a dime a dozen, and Friedkin’s film has many familiar characters, but these characters are put into interesting dilemmas; rather than have the story plod along predictable lines, the story thrusts these lawmen and villains into murky moral waters. And, to top it off, Friedkin stages a car chase that rivals his legendary sequence from The French Connection.
The picture stars William Petersen – an actor who never got the star treatment he deserved – as Secret Service agent Richard Chance. Chance is cocky, brash, and not entirely likable in all the right ways. After his partner is killed chasing a lead on a counterfeiter mere days from retirement, Chance makes it his mission in life to bring down the counterfeiter, Eric Masters, played coolly by Willem Dafoe in one of his earliest starring roles.
Dafoe’s Masters is the perfect juxtaposition to Petersen’s fiery agent. Where Chance is brash and vocal, Masters is brash and smooth, quietly confident, bragging later in the film that he is an easy man to find. He flaunts his counterfeiting prowess. The sequence early in the film showing Masters manufacture some “funny money” is celebrated for its authenticity and attention to detail, so much so that the cast was worried they may be breaking some sort of laws by showing such an intricate criminal enterprise in this sort of detail.
To Live and Die in LA could have easily fall into the rhythm of good guy chasing bad guy, but these characters are not so clearly drawn along black and white lines. Chance, aptly named, uses a female criminal informant as he desires, he loses sight of the law, and his decisions build a mountain of nearly impossible odds. After Chance and his new partner, Vukovich (John Pankow), get to Masters as two prospective buyers, Chance’s boss won’t allow the $30,000 buy in to move the sting forward. Desperate to get his man, Chance devises a plan to rob another criminal for the cash, but naturally things go awry, leading to the chase along the freeways and access roads of So-Cal.
The chase is necessary to the plot, not simply a shameless action-grab addition. A majority of the chase takes place on the wrong side of a major freeway, and is white-knuckle from start to finish because of the stakes involved. To Live and Die in LA is all about the stakes of the game, and with brilliant performances and taut direction from Friedkin, the tension builds from start to finish. It is a masterful film in nearly every sense, full of brilliant complexity.
Recent news is that Friedkin is bringing To Live and Die in LA to the small screen with WGN America. Part of me could see this story work in a serialized environment, but the other part of me realizes the effectiveness of this story – which is rife with real surprises – lies in its self-contained format. Regardless of how the new series may turn out, To Live and Die in LA is a film any fan of the crime drama should seek out. It hasn’t lost a step as it nears it’s 30th anniversary.