By James Calemine
It’s hard to believe I watched To Live and Die in L. A. for the first time in a theater 33 years ago. William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist & Bug) directed this classic. And, say, for the 20th time I watched it again on DVD today. The story is based on the novel by former U.S. Secret Service agent Gerald Petievich, who co-wrote the screenplay with Friedkin.
The film resonates just as much now as it did in 1986. When U.S. Secret Service agent Richard Chance’s (William Petersen) longtime partner is killed by a notorious counterfeiter Eric Masters (Willem Dafoe), Chance vows revenge, “And I don’t give a shit how I do it.”
Chance’s new partner John Vukovich (John Pankow) follows the plan with extreme reluctance, and things get intense.
This film put William Petersen on the map long before he achieved CSI TV star status. Right after To Live and Die in L.A. he starred in Manhunter and a film based on Paul Hemphill’s baseball novel Long Gone.
John Turturro (O Brother Where Art Thou?, Miller’s Crossing) proves compelling in this film as does Dafoe. Wang Chung’s weird techno soundtrack fits the gritty narrative. Dean Stockwell portrays a soulless lawyer that represents the counterfeiter with ruthless precision.
Friedkin intentionally renders the cold-blooded feel to this film. There’s never a dull moment. Friedkin weaves bungee jumping, gun blasts, sex, murder, dirty money, government corruption, a brutal chase scene and painting into this grim tale that contains an eerie, unconventional Hollywood ending.
Friedkin once said of this film: “All of the films I have made, that I have chosen to make, are all about the thin line between good and evil. And also the thin line that exists in each and every one of us. That’s what my films are about. That’s what To Live and Die in L.A. is about.”