Tuesday, January 12, 2010

To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)

Starring: William Petersen, Willem Dafoe, John Pankow
Written by: Gerald Petievich (novel, screenplay), William Friedkin (screenplay)
Directed by: William Friedkin

To Live and Die in L.A.
, William Friedkin's stylish 80s crime thriller, is notorious for one of the greatest car chases ever captured on film. Which is completely deserved, as the chase scene featured in the movie is a true nail-biter. But unlike Bullitt (that other "great car chase" movie), there's a lot more going on story-wise in the film.

From the opening credits with the smog-choked skies of the city and the industrial wastelands of L.A., it's clear we won't be spending any time in the scenic landscapes and upscale neighborhoods Hollywood usually has us visit. The L.A. that Friedkin is showing us is the seedy underbelly, the trainyards, dilapidated architecture and gritty urban cityscape. The skies run blood red in the opening shots, and the haze makes the vistas almost alien in appearance. A different setting indeed, when "Miami Vice" ruled the airwaves.

When his partner is found dead while tracking down counterfeiter extraordinaire Rick Masters (Dafoe), hotshot Secret Service agent Richard Chance vows to bring him down at any cost. Together with his new straight-laced (and spineless) partner, John Vukovich (Pankow), Chance hits the mean streets of Los Angeles with a vengeance, using everything from blackmail to robbery just to get close to his prey.

Chance is an adrenaline junkie - he's quick to jump headfirst into a situation and damn the consequences. Masters has been untouchable for years and loves to flaunt this in his criminal enterprise. At times, the lines of distinction between these two men bleeds, and one wonders if there's even a good guy.

Counterfeiting becomes a major theme in the film, beyond just the act of printing money. The entire movie is counterfeit - from the relationships, to the motives, to the world in which these characters live. Everyone's being played by somebody else, you don't know who to trust, and it leaves the entire movie shaded in ambiguity that throws you off the scent. Together with the hard-hitting action scenes (and an ending no one saw coming), you're left reeling from the roller coaster chase of it all.


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