Director William Friedkin's 1985 crime drama TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. is a startlingly, astonishingly bad movie that, like many of its kind, thinks it's really good. Thinks it's a genre classic or something. It had the makings of one. Director Friedkin helmed 1971's THE FRENCH CONNECTION, and I don't think anyone would argue its merit or that it IS a genre classic. That film involved tough NY cops and narcotics peddlers. It was raw, lean, and effective. The storyline in TO LIVE AND DIE... rather breathlessly tracks slimy counterfeiters and their apprehenders. It's a different animal, this movie. It tries to be ambiguous (in a good way) and even existential. It fails awesomely. For many, one problem is that the "good guys" (Federal agents) are almost as dirty as the criminals. The few film critics who actually did damn this movie cited that they didn't know who to root for.
That is never a problem for this viewer. I don't need anyone to root for. I'm more interested in what makes characters tick, good or otherwise. On that level? TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. also fails miserably. Let's see....
William Petersen is Treasury agent Richard Chance. He's been trying to catch master counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Defoe) for some time. Chance fails again and again, and gets really incensed when his partner is killed in yet another botch. And about Chance's efforts: this guy is either really dumb or incredibly sloppy, or both. I can't recall seeing a more inept Agent in fiction or in real life. Was this intentional? If so, how did screenwriters Friedkin and Gerald Petievich (who adapts his novel of the same name) expect us to react to this guy? Chance is not only a slimy jerk, but a seeming moron, too. Right, and I said I didn't care that I couldn't root for him. True, but why is he like this? I don't need backstory or tiresome exposition, no, this is a thriller that should keep moving (we'll get to that). BUT, Chance is so thinly written and duly acted that we can't get a read on him. He's enigmatic, but not in any interesting way. He's quite vapid, truth be told.
Masters is also a shadow, a mystery, and we don't really learn about him either. We watch some (fascinating) sequences as he meticulously arranges his equipment and lays plates to produce the funny money, but other than learning that he is a craftsman, we see little else. Or Chance's new partner, Vukovich (John Pankow) who mainly panics and swears a lot. Under the circumstances, that's understandable.
How so? Our crusaders make some Hall of Fame blunders, including getting an FBI guy killed during an abortive attempt to convince Masters that they are legitimate potential clients. This mistake leads to what should have been a grand set piece for this movie, a car chase down an L.A. freeway. The wrong way. During rush hour. Sounds pomising, like it can't miss. It does. This is one lame sequence, an amateurish melange of poor direction and editing. Every time the chase threatens to become exciting, Friedkin cuts to the wrong thing. I understand that such a scenario is a lot of stop and start, a constant vehiculus interruptus, if you will. But, c'mon, Bill! You staged some amazing (and apparently real) car chases in Brooklyn for FRENCH CONNECTION. Here, it seems as if someone with no idea how to do a set-up or block was given a bullhorn and a DP to (mis)guide. Everyone should've screened BULLITT a few times to remind themselves how it should be done. Or even THE BLUES BROTHERS!
Then there's the dialogue. You expect some colorful speeches in a movie like this. Someone in this movie even utters the old cop-about-to-retire-cliche, "I'm too old for this shit". But TO LIVE AND DIE is rife with tough guy asinine quotes. Too many to list, though my favorites are almost anything by Pepto-Bismol clutching lowlife Carl Cody (John Turturro): "...and the check is in the mail. And I love you. And I promise not to come in your mouth," for example. Now, movies like THE USUAL SUSPECTS and any Tarantinos have swagger dialogue like this, but usually it's tongue-in-cheek. Here, everything is so serious it clashes with the neo-Nietzche woldview of this picture. Yeah, it's bleak, sleazy, nihilistic. The plentiful unintentional laughs work against this movie being a bitter classic.
It's too bad, because TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. really did look promising. All of the right elements (cast, director, assorted crew) were there, but somehow it really fell apart (aside from Wang Chung's effective tracks and scoring, surprisingly enough). The movie does succeed as being a thoroughly depressing, hopeless-to-the end downer. A sun drenched, washed out bad trip. Perhaps that was the idea, a diseased poem to the City of Angels. Maybe the city is supposed to represent sin, debauchery itself in this movie. You think that over, then you go watch CHINATOWN and scrub out your brain. Or your soul.
Part 2, "The Great Overrated" Series