Sunday 15 September 2019

Movie Review: To Live And Die In L.A. (1985)

A police investigation action thriller, To Live And Die In L.A. takes a conventional story and twists it into a compelling dark journey into the soul's abyss.

Secret Agents Richard Chance (William Petersen) and Jimmy Hart (Michael Greene) foil a terrorist attack in Washington D.C. The duo are reassigned to Los Angeles where Hart is gunned down days away from retirement while investigating the elaborate money counterfeiting operation run by Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe). Chance tells his new partner John Vukovich (John Pankow) he will stop at nothing to bring down Masters.

Chance controls the life of parolee informer Ruth (Darlanne Fluegel) with sex and money, and she leads him to crooked lawyer Max Waxman (Christopher Allport), a buyer of fake currency. His death yields a notebook with more details about the counterfeiting business. The agents arrest Masters' courier Carl Cody (John Turturro) and connect with his disillusioned lawyer Bob Grimes (Dean Stockwell). When Chance and Vukovich impersonate potential clients but are stymied by a lack of money to catch Masters in the act, Chance turns to methods well outside the rule book to pursue the investigation.

Director William Friedkin chose the novel by former secret agent Gerald Petievich for his return to form. Working with a limited budget and with a cast of relative unknowns, he crafts a nihilistic police thriller intent on breaking conventions and subverting expectations. To Live And Die In L.A. amplifies The French Connection themes of rampant corruption and the lost battle against crime. But this time Secret Agent Chance is more honest about his willingness to operate all the way outside the lines, resulting in a brilliantly disconcerting narrative running on unstable energy fragments.

Chance is an unforgettable and unsettling character. A cocky risk-taking thrill seeker, he believes in his own indestructibility, his version of justice, and fierce loyalty to the memory of his murdered partner Hart. He callously takes advantage of informant Ruth, using her for sex and information while threatening her with a return to prison. And when it's time to close in on his prime target Masters, Chance circumvents the bureaucracy by launching a rogue mission to secure the funds he needs, placing in jeopardy everyone he should care about but providing him with the ultimate thrill ride.

And Friedkin translates Chance's thrill into a seminal car chase scene, at least equalling the heart-stopping action of The French Connection and here featuring a sojourn through the iconic LA river then an astounding and incredibly staged high speed crash-filled manic race traveling the wrong way against freeway traffic.

In addition to bursts of violence and some effective gore, Friedkin infuses the movie with an undercurrent of unconstrained sexuality, both the predator Chance and the prey Masters stripped bare in several scenes and coldly engaging in emotionless sex as confirmation of their mirrored explicit personalities and rotting cores.

Other highlights include an elaborate and seemingly authentic recreation of the counterfeiting process, a vivid visual style inspired by television's Miami Vice, and a singular music soundtrack featuring English new wave band Wang Chung.

Petersen was plucked from the Chicago theatre circuit and his obscurity works in his favour. With no screen persona to adhere to, Petersen has a blank canvass to create Chance upon, and he succeeds in combining edgy cool with barely concealed combustible emotional tension. In one of his earliest prominent roles Willem Dafoe provides an aura of violent arrogance as Masters.

A gripping disruption of the familiar, To Live And Die In L.A. creates its own exhilarating set of rules and consequences.

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