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To Live and Die in L.A.

Posted by martinteller on May 11, 2013

Secret Service agent Richard Chance (William Petersen) is out for justice.  His partner (Michael Greene) was killed trying to take down a counterfeiting ring.  Now Chance won’t be stopped in his pursuit of the man responsible: ace counterfeiter Eric Masters (Willem Dafoe).  He enlists the aid of his informant/girlfriend (Darlanne Fluegel) and an associate of Masters whose life is in danger behind bars (John Turturro).  But how far will his new partner John Vukovich (John Pankow) go with him?

At first this seems like it’s going to be a very clichéd cop movie.  A slick criminal mastermind, a partner killed two days before retirement, a cop who doesn’t play by the rules, unnecessary sex scene.  Five minutes in, Greene even says “I’m getting too old for this shit.”  I was waiting for the scene where Chance is called into his boss’s office and told “You’re off the case!” and forced to hand over his badge and gun.

But Friedkin doesn’t go that route.  Chance isn’t a cop who just bends a few rules, he’s not Axel Foley.  He goes deep, and dark.  It’s not batshit crazy stuff like Bad Lieutenant, but there’s a definite point of no return as he digs himself into a deeper and deeper hole, and the film questions your sense of justice.  When do the enforcers of the law become no better than the people they’re trying to stop, and how do you measure what’s worth that moral sacrifice?  No, this isn’t light Saturday matinee entertainment to reassure you the good will triumph in the end.  The ending here evokes the fiery pits of hell.  This is the stuff of noir.

It’s also very well put together.  Friedkin’s car chase sequence in The French Connection is legendary.  I think he tops it here.  He completely drops out the music, letting just the intensity of the dialogue and noise drive the soundtrack.  The chase is thrilling in its confusion, not just in the sense that Chance has to constantly improvise but also in that there are increasing doubts about who the other guys are.  It’s a beautifully choreographed chase that must have been a nightmare to stage.

Petersen and Dafoe are reliably strong, and I especially appreciated how Dafoe sidesteps many of the “ultra-suave criminal” tropes.  He’s not always one step ahead, he can be caught off-guard.  Likewise, Petersen is a risk-taker, but he’s not impulsive about it… and he doesn’t make clever quips about it or try to be cute doing it.  Pankow is one of those “Oh hey, it’s that guy” actors who I’ve never thought about much before, but he’s really good here too.

There’s more to like.  If you’re averse to dated 80’s synth-pop, the soundtrack may drive you nuts.  As a fan of Wang Chung (at least, “Dance Hall Days” has always been one of my favorites), I enjoyed it a lot.  It never got too obnoxious for me, and most of the time helped drive the film.  And the film does move at an excellent clip.  There really aren’t any parts that’ll have you checking your watch.  The cinematography by Robby Müller (frequently worked with Wenders, Jarmusch and Von Trier) is pretty solid, flashy without overdoing it.  And the counterfeiting montage is the kind of “how the sausage is made” thing I always like to see.  I have no idea if it’s at all close to reality, but it was a neat sequence.

Except for The Exorcist, it’s the best I’ve seen from Friedkin… which isn’t a very long list.  I suppose it’s high time I got around to his Wages of Fear remake, Sorcerer.  If nothing else, I know the Tangerine Dream soundtrack is good.  Rating: Very Good (86)


4 Responses to “To Live and Die in L.A.”

  1. JamDenTel said

    This one has been on my “to-watch” list for quite some time. Your praise bolsters my confidence in having blind-bought it.

  2. alexwatkins2805 said

    Been banging the drum for a while, but Killer Joe is a must-see. My favorite of 2012, out of about 40.

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