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TO LIVE AND DIE IN LA (director/writer: William Friedkin; screenwriter: based on Gerald Petievich’s novel/Gerald Petievich; cinematographer: Robby Muller; editor: Bud Smith; music: Wang Chung; cast: Willem Dafoe (Eric Masters), William L. Petersen (Richard Chance ), John Pankow (John Vukovich), Debra Feuer (Bianca Torres), John Turturro (Carl Cody), Darlanne Fluegel (Ruth Lanier), Dean Stockwell (Bob Grimes), Robert Downey (Thomas Bateman), Michael Greene (Jim Hart), Jack Hoar (Jack), Christopher Allport (Max Waxman), Michael Chong (Thomas Ling), Val DeVargas (Judge Filo Cedillo); Runtime: 114; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Irving H. Levin; MGM Home Entertainment; 1985)
The action thrives on overkill.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

William Friedkin (“The French Connection”/”The Exorcist”/”Wages of Fear”) cowrites and directs this glossy-styled, adrenaline pumping cop thriller, whose stock still remains high as a cult film that defies the formulaic rules of its mainstream roots by being such a nasty pic. It features federal agents who are just as revolting as the crooks, leaving the viewer up in the air as to who to root for without reservations. The action thrives on overkill and the revenge comes with a wild-eyed fiery ending, and the sex is more perverse than beautiful. It’s a violent film that can’t (or rather doesn’t want to) smooth over the mess it left behind. If you like lots of action, volatile characters who act first and think later, viewing the full details of how counterfeiters print money as if watching a documentary special, and a pic that wants you to believe that the decadent urban scene it gloriously depicts is more important to the story than plot or character, then Friedkin and cowriter Gerald Petievich, who bases the screenplay on his novel, got you in the palm of their hand. Petievich was a former Secret Service man, which explains why the pic gets the inner workings of the agency right.

The role-model Secret Service agent Jim Hart (Michael Greene) is slain 3 days before retirement (just after saying his cliche send-off that he’s getting too old for this shit) and his hotshot risk-taking young partner he mentored and befriended, Richard Chance (William L. Petersen), vows he will get the killer one way or another. The ruthless killer is the maniacal jailbird artist turned master counterfeiter, Eric Masters (Willem Dafoe), who was being tailed by Hart after years eluding the law. Chance is now partnered with green straight-arrow John Vukovich (John Pankow), whose stomach churns ashis ballsy federal agent partner doesn’t play by the rules–arrogantly believing he’s above the law because he’s after the bad guys.

Things turn sour when captured Masters’ mule Carl Cody (John Turturro) escapes from Chance’s custody before leading him to where the Man prints the funny money. But things get even worse when Masters’ crooked double-dealing lawyer (Dean Stockwell) is miffed at the way he’s treated by his client as a mere errand boy and he sells him out by telling the federal agents how to get a meeting with Masters to buy funny money. Trouble is the printer wants $30,000 upfront and the agency only authorizes buys of up to $10,000. Obsessed with nabbing Masters, Chance uses the tip from a paroled informant in his debt, Ruth (Darlanne Fluegel), whom he abuses as a sex slave and threatens with being sent back to the slammer unless she keeps feeding him info. When Ruth tells of a mule carrying $50,000 in cash for hot diamonds, Chance wants to go rogue and talks the reluctant John into going along with this crazy robbery idea as a means of buying with the robbery’s real money the artist’s funny money. It turns out the mule (Michael Chong) is an undercover FBI agent and is killed during the robbery, as the FBI backup team then pursues the robbers in a harrowing long car chase that sees the wayward feds escape by speeding down the wrong way lanes on the crowded rush-hour freeway.

Though it has the look and feel of TV’s Miami Vice, it maintains an edginess, much like the cinema’s Dirty Harry, and cynically concludes that everything in the world is counterfeit–from heroes to lovers, from artists to cops. But it’s not the cynical message or the salty talk that sticks with you, it’s the exciting well-choreographed car chase (one of cinema’s top ten car chases), its matter-of-fact mind-blowing brutality throughout, and Robby Muller’s eye-popping slick color photography of a corrupt LA looking deceptively beautiful in splashy Technicolor even if many of its citizens are getting shot ugly in the head.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”