To Live and Die in L.A. - S.E.  (1985)


Starring: William Peterson, Willem Dafoe, John Pankow

Director: William Friedkin

Rating: R

Distributor: MGM Home Entertainment

Release Date: December 2, 2003
Review posted: December 2, 2003

Spoilers: Minor


Reviewed by Dennis Landmann




Secret Service agent Richard Chance (Petersen) has a score to settle and he's through playing by the rules. Whether that means blackmailing a beautiful parolee, disobeying direct orders or hurtling the wrong way down a crowded freeway, he vows to take down a murderous counterfeiter (Dafoe) by any means necessary with the help of his new partner (Pankow). But as the stakes grow higher, will Chance's obsession with vengeance ultimately destroy him?




Seeing one of William Friedkin's earlier films is a relief since most of his films over the past decade have been nothing more than duds or only passable encounters. I enjoyed most of Rules of Engagement, but had more than a few problems with The Hunted, although a certain foot chase was terrific. However, To Live and Die in L.A. is ultimately Friedkin's last great film as he returns to familiar territory previously explored in The French Connection. With both his solid and spontaneous style, Friedkin creates an effective, gritty and genre-defying thriller.


To Live and Die in L.A. arrived in 1985 on the heels of TV's Miami Vice. 48 Hrs. had already been released three years earlier, introducing critics and audiences to a new era of buddy cop films. Thing is, this film is much different. It combines the danger and thrills of life in the fast lane. Still, a lot of people didn't give the film much of a chance. And only two years later Lethal Weapon would arrive and make a strong impact on the buddy cop genre.


From a novel by Gerald Petievich, To Live and Die in L.A.

shows the dark side, paranoia and desperation of two Secret Service agents working in Los Angeles to bring down a killer. Richard Chance (Peterson) lives on the edge, but his new partner, John Vukovich (Pankow), does not. Following these two men on their investigation is intriguing to watch. Chance and Vukovich go undercover as businessmen to make a buy from Eric Masters (Dafoe) in order to arrest him in the act, but complications occur; they don't have the collateral to put up as a down payment. The script, by Friedkin and Petievich, includes several subplots that are equally interesting to watch and effectively contribute to the main story.


For example, Chance has a relationship with Ruth (Darlanne Fluegel), a woman out on parole who sometimes acts as an informer. She gives Chance a tip about a man carrying fifty thousand dollars arriving at the train station. Chance seizes the opportunity to steal that money for the down payment even though he'll be committing a criminal act, and Vukovich joins him despite reluctantly. After apprehending the man and searching his suitcase, a terrific car chase ensues. It rivals the one in The French Connection and at at times Friedkin outdoes himself. This chase covers a lot more soil, such as going the wrong way on the freeway (literally), racing over L.A.'s cement riverbed, and resulting in a frenetic state of paranoia and fear for Vukovich. Moments like these make To Live and Die in L.A. a touch-as-nails and gritty film.


Seeing a tough and slim William Peterson in this film pre-CSI is kind of cool. He really puts a lot of effort into his performance, making the viewer believe this guy will not stop at anything to get his way. Despite the arrogance in him, Richard Chance is a likeable character. It's understanding that his Secret Service image and attitude change after the film's opening sequence, which, by the way, is terrific. On top of that he has to stomach the killing of his about-to-retire partner by the ruthless counterfeiter Eric Masters. Peterson would later go on to star in another cool thriller, Manhunter, but I like his no-holds-barred performance in To Live and Die in L.A. much better.


As Masters, Willem Dafoe is effectively smart and menacing at the same time. It should be noted he's not a cliché. He can be pretty ruthless and creepy at times, but is able to retain a somewhat sane behavior when it comes to making love to his girlfriend Bianca (Debra Feuer). What gets him in trouble, however, is his job, making counterfeit money. Speaking of that, the montage featuring Masters creating the counterfeit money is just amazing. Composed to Wang Chung's cool 80's retro score, Friedkin and cinematographer Robby Muller capture the process in great detail. In fact, the production manufactured some $100 thousand dollars worth of fake bills just for that sequence.


To Live and Die in L.A. is not without its flaws. The middle moves somewhat slow and a few scenes feel disjointed. Some aspects of the film are not entirely realistic, although it is the exaggerated reality that makes the film so intense. Friedkin's solid direction puts the film right on track on almost every occasion. He's familiar with the genre and gives audiences a new, much grittier view of Los Angeles, one that doesn't reflect the city of angels idiom. Friedkin is not afraid to deliberately blur the line of good and bad in a story like this. Moreover, he also gets terrific performances out of the actors portraying three-dimensional characters. Chance, Masters and Vukovich all have something in common; they each have their own motivations. Their dialogue is also realistic.


To Live and Die in L.A. comes highly recommended. See it for Friedkin, Peterson and Dafoe.


The Video


MGM presents To Live and Die in L.A. in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Colors are vibrant and well-saturated. Color detail looks nice. I noticed some softness in a few scenes, although dark tones and blacks looked good. Image quality looks clean and sharp. MGM did a very nice job cleaning it up. Only a few specks appear on the print. Some grain and dust also appear. I didn't notice any compression artifacts, however. Interior scenes are well-lit, while exterior shots change color hues from time to time. That's mostly due to the atmosphere of the particular day. Sometimes the sun gives Los Angeles a hot and gritty look. Overall, MGM's presentation looks very nice.


The Audio


MGM presents To Live and Die in L.A. in English 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound. Wang Chung's score sounds off nicely in this presentation. It penetrates the soundfield from all sides. Dialogue scenes are clear and easy to understand, with the two front channels reproducing them in good fashion. There is not a great deal of dynamic range as some dialogue is a bit quiet, but that depends on the individual scene. Sound effects, like those in the kick-ass freeway chase, sound just great. The surrounds have their work cut out for them during some of the film's action-oriented scenes. Overall, this is a pretty good audio presentation.


Also available are French Stereo Surround and Spanish Mono dub tracks.


The Extras


This film really deserves a nice special edition and MGM did just that for us film fans. Aside from very nice video and audio quality, the studio has produced a reasonable amount of extras to please fans of the film.


First is an all-new audio commentary by William Friedkin. He's pretty soft-spoken and goes into all sorts of things. He covers some of the production as well as specific scenes in the film and story. He also comments on the actors a bit. Overall, I enjoyed this track. If only he could've been joined by William L. Peterson, Willem Dafoe and John Pankow. Now that would've been fantastic!


Even though we don't get a commentary by those guys, they do participate in a fantastic, all-new documentary called Counterfeit World: The Making of To Live and Die in L.A. (29:49). The docu features cool behind-the-scenes footage and some very nice interviews with those three guys in addition to Friedkin, co-producer/editor Bud Smith, prop master Berry Bedig, and one brief stint by actress Darlanne Fluegel. Several really cool stories come out of this documentary, especially those about the airport foot chase and the shooting of the counterfeiting montage at the beginning of the film, plus a few others, like the one where an undercover police officer spotted Pankow in a restaurant a year after the film's release and emphasized the actor's paranoid and frantic performance was very realistic.


The docu also focuses on working with Friedkin from the points of view by the actors. Other topics of discussion is the freeway chase and the film's shocking climax. The chase filmed for five weeks at the end of the shooting schedule and included roughly 40 stunt guys. Peterson got to do a lot of his own driving. I guess it goes without saying that this documentary is pretty damn cool.


Next are two featurettes. The alternate ending featurette (8:39) discusses the film's shocking climax with interviews by Friedkin, Peterson and Smith. Friedkin shot an alternate ending just in case, mainly for the studio, but realized it just didn't work. It features Chance and Vukovich reassigned to a place in Alaska. "That ending would've been the Eddie Murphy ending," said Peterson. And he's right, it would be. You can watch the alternate ending as part of the featurette or by itself.


The second one is the deleted scene featurette (4:25). In the scene, presented in really weak video quality, Vukovich pays a visit to his ex-wife to try and settle things, but gets shut out. It's a brief scene, but Friedkin admits to liking it. He would've left it if it were possible. You can watch the deleted scene as part of the featurette or by itself.


Rounding out the extras is a photo gallery with 62 stills, the film's theatrical trailer (2:06) and teaser (1:25), plus bonus trailers for Dark Blue, Fargo and La Femme Nikita.


You can select to view the film with optional English, French and Spanish subtitles. The 116-minute feature is organized into thirty-two chapters.




To Live and Die in L.A. features an intricate plot that blurs the lines of good and bad. Characters are three-dimensional, giving the actors great material to turn into terrific performances. Friedkin's direction is really solid and the action is intense. MGM's video/audio transfers are pretty nice. Extras are not overwhelming, but pretty good. The DVD is highly recommended. A purchase is in order, but not only for fans of the film.









OVERALL (not an average)









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