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To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) September 12, 2004

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 1998

If the current trends of Hollywood filmmaking continue, we are probably five or six years away from the moment when the 1980s would become the next Golden Age of movie nostalgia. Although some Hollywood products already use the last decade as a background for their stories (mostly in ironic way, like GROSSE POINTE BLANK and ROMY & MICHELLE’S HIGH SCHOOL REUNION), some time should pass before the good memories of that era overcome the bad ones. Until that happens, 1980s would be remembered as the Decade of Greed, when the revolutionary ideals of 1960s turned into its cruel, materialistic opposite and the money became the only thing that matters. Contemporary movies are good in illustrating what was bad for the people who had to live in those times. One of such movies, one that probably brings the essence of 1980s to the screen, is William Friedkin’s TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A.

The money isn’t just the symbolic motive in the film, it is the major elements of the plot. Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe) is an ex-convict who used his artistic abilities in order to become one of the best counterfeiters in L.A. Being too intelligent to fall into police traps, and ruthless enough to eliminate anybody or anything that could jeopardise his career, Masters managed to elude law for years and became well- connected. Richard Chance (William L. Petersen) is a Secret Service agent, adrenaline junkie whose life gets new meaning after his partner got killed by Masters. However, his plans of bringing the counterfeiter down meet one obstacle after another. Finally he sets up a final sting, but his superiors deny him the necessary money. Being frustrated, and against the reluctance of his new partner John Vukovich (Bill Pankow), he decides to get the money by robbing underworld courier. Their plan backfires with almost tragic consequences when their target turns out to be undercover FBI agent, but Chance decides to carry out his scheme anyway.

Like FRENCH CONNECTION, one of his previous masterpieces, this Friedkin’s movie was inspired by real life. Gerrald Petievich, author of the novel that later served as basis for his screenplay, spent many years working as a Secret Service agent. That turned to be useful for the portrayal of that law enforcement agency, not much utilised by Hollywood. Secret Service millieu was also cleverly used in order to bring the viewer into the Decade of Greed; the beginning scene where the movie’s hero works as a part of presidential security detail is a nice opportunity to hear Reagan’s speech that could illustrate the political and economical notions of those times.

Ultramaterialistic and egotistical view of the world is shared by almost any character in the movie. Willem Dafoe brilliantly portrays dangerous and intelligent psychopath, whose ruthlessness and lack of any moral fibber doesn’t seem like affliction in the Reagan years; on the contrary, those qualities actually makes Masters socially acceptable. Compared with him, and all the other side characters that want their “piece of the action”, two heroes on the side of Law seem like losers. Instead of being a classical good guy, Secret Service agent Richard Chance (portrayed by William Petersen in his most impressive role so far) is nothing more than a lunatic whose adrenaline addiction and madness work against his better judgement; his sidekick, who should serve as those “better judgement” is a weakling and sentimental fool that gets suckered in the end. In such surroundings of moral decay, the not so happy, yet surprising ending doesn’t seem out of line (although the very last shot leaves too much questions unanswered).

The dark atmosphere of L.A. – city of glamour and moral decay – is nicely captured by William Friedkin’s directing skills. The tight and realistic scripts with memorable characters (portrayed by such capable actors like John Turturro, Dean Stockwell, Debra Feuer, Darlanne Fleugel and Steve James) gave opportunity for Friedkin to use another gimmick that made him famous in his 1971 masterpiece – great car chase. That scene alone, with lot of realism, thrills and surprise twists, is worth seeing the rest of the film. The soundtrack, provided by now almost forgotten band “Wang Chung”, is also one of the more memorable of that decade. In every case, TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. is one of the rare movies in which Hollywood actually tries to tell some unflattering truths about the world and succeeds in it.

RATING: 8/10 (+++)

Review written on July 30th 1998



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