I am not here to discuss that film, however, today we will look at another Friedkin crime movie and another fantastic car chase to add to his resume. To Live and Die in L.A., a crime thriller with the moral ambiguity of The French Connection but with a uniquely gaudy gloss that sets it firmly within '80s cinema and a world away from the grit and grime of his 1971 Oscar winner.
United States Secret Service agent Richard Chance (played by Mr. 1980s, William Petersen) and his partner Jimmy Hart (Michael Greene) are assigned to investigate a counterfeiting ring in Los Angeles. On a solo stake out, Hart is caught and murdered by Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe), the counterfeiter running the operation. Vowing revenge, Chance along with new partner John Vukovich (John Pankow) plan to take down Masters using whatever means necessary.
Moving from the minimalism of The Driver and the moody grit of Thief, To Live and Die in L.A. is slick. Nestled at the dead center of one of the most style/substance imbalanced eras of all time, the film seems to magnify every element.
William Petersen is a strong and charismatic lead, even if his character can be summed up with the cop movie cliché: Loose cannon. He is cocky and a little wired but seems to fit into the film comfortably.
Dafoe oozes a disturbing sexuality in everything he says, no matter what the subject, making his villain strangely magnetic. You feel a little dirty watching him, a little uncertain and unsafe, and that only adds to his subtle menace.
John Pankow starts out as the other cop movie cliché: By the books partner. As a result he feels a little dull by comparison to the more manic Petersen and Dafoe, but he is an essential component to the genre and serves his purpose well. He has the most extreme character arc of all the characters, struggling with the burden of trying to live by a black and white code in a grey world.
Once again, we see a pretty drastic shift in style and tone with the movies score, from Michael Small's pulsing electronic Driver score and Tangerine Dream's oppressive sonic fog, we get Wang Chung. I am not going to lie, watching this movie and reconciling the fact you must listen to Wang Chung is a tricky proposition. The opening theme song is crass and tonally jarring with the movie you expect to find from the director of The French Connection, but as things progress you begin to realise the bouncy New Wave stylings of this English two-piece fits perfectly with the film Friedkin made; for better or worse.
With the performance and soundtrack being appropriately mannered to the excess of the '80s, the overall look of the film often fits in with this. There are scenes that look simple, direct and even the right level of ugly and loose (particularly for the action heavy scenes, which we will come to soon) for a crime movie but it is impossible to overlook some of the more stylised set ups within the film. The lighting in many scenes is particularly elaborate with a lot of night-time scenes basked in carefully positioned shadows, the light sourcing often defying logic, in order to illuminate certain cast members faces or important spots within the frame. On occasion coloured filters are incorporated, again, because it was the 1980s and it was the thing to do. A sequence involving counterfeit plates being produced is cut and scored like a scene from Flashdance; even the time stamps change font regularly, just to keep things visually interesting. It is by no means a knock against the film and adds to that heightened sensation; it's pure style, unafraid to give realism the middle finger. It simply takes a bit of an adjustment period for the more modern palate, of which Driver and Thief are more compatible.
Like Michael Mann's Thief, Friedkin's film takes its time to build towards moments of violence but when it happens they wallow in it. When someone pulls out a gun the movie becomes very violent, with an abundance of extremely bloody squibs and some very graphic headshots throughout the film; all tying into that tone of excess. While it differs in tone to the harder works of the 1970s, it still manages to share a hard, dangerous edge.
To Live and Die in L.A. is a ballsy movie; it does things most crime thrillers just never have the guts to do, where good guys are just as susceptible to an unexpected death as the villains. Like the more recent The Departed, violent death truly comes out of nowhere and firmly establishes that this is a movie where anything could happen.Despite the commendable risk taking and comfort with extreme violence, the script is admittedly a disappointment, especially when compared to previous "Drive"-In features that excelled in their scripting. Structurally the plot is strong and moves at a good pace with surprising plot twists but the dialogue is bland, even by the standards of the genre during the decade it feels like a check list of clichés: We have a character being told he's a reckless hot-shot, a character two days away from retirement exclaims he is "too old for this shit" and someone finds themselves "in the wrong place at the wrong time". The dialogue seems less interested in maintaining a distinct voice or fleshing out characters, than it is keeping the plot moving and filling in any silent stretches.
Friedkin's The French Connection is timeless in a way To Live and Die in L.A. just cannot achieve, an irony of attempting make a movie that feels ‘in the moment’ leaving it trapped in that moment, whereas a movie that avoids this can date more gracefully.
That said, the decade specific quirks are not a deal breaker, in fact they contribute a lot of the movies unique charm and hidden among the more gaudy period decoration it is possible to see the William Friedkin responsible The French Connection alive and well. The biggest set piece of the entire film is, appropriately, a car chase. Friedkin will go down in history as one of the quintessential horror directors but he is unquestionably one of the finest action directors of all time. The only other filmmakers who can convey the speed and precision of a car chase more fluidly and effectively than Friedkin are Walter Hill or George Miller.
Following a deal gone awry, the two undercover agents are on the run for their lives with a group of armed agents chasing them down, with a lot of ambushes laid out ahead of them. The sequence lasts roughly 8 minutes and unlike The Driver's stripped down, fluid chase, this is composed of a series of smaller and varied set pieces through varied locations and different perils, pieced together to create an elaborate but whole journey.
As opposed to moving through the compact streets of Driver's LA, this takes place on the dirt roads, industrial yards and highways surrounding the city; far more complicated and crowded locations. Friedkin has to incorporate all of this, as well as track the progress of the protagonists and the pursuing cars.
It's surprising how well it comes together; Friedkin has cameras racing alongside the key vehciles and makes use of POV shots and cameras mounted on the roof and hood of the cars, giving a complete but focused overview of all the action. We see cars dodge trains, speed down aqueducts, maneuver through oncoming traffic, all with a firm grasp of the geography for each set piece. While it's not as structurally perfect as Walter Hill's chase sequences or even Friedkin's work in The French Connection, the momentum is never lost and while things grow increasingly complicated, it is never a chaotic mess.
The fact that it is all done on location with some quite elaborate stunt driving only adds to that feeling of intensity and authenticity. It's pretty incredible work from a director who really had nothing to prove within the realms of the cinematic car chase but still gave everything he had.
The complexity of the sequence robs it of that hard-charging, directness or The Driver or even The French Connection‘s chase, but it still manages to be an incredible ride.
If you can handle a heightened tone with slicker than grease style, spare but brutal violence and thrilling car chases; To Live and Die in L.A. is a must see.