When a notorious, highly sophisticated counterfeiter murders his partner, Secret Service agent Richard Chance (William Petersen) launches a furious vendetta to capture the man responsible. But master counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe) is always just one step ahead of Chance in William Friedkin's thrilling, suspenseful crime drama. With violent shoot-outs and a turbulent chase scene reminiscent of Friedkin's own The French Connection, To Live and Die in L.A. broke with tradition by making the ostensible hero as morally reprehensible as the villain he pursues. Clashing with bureaucratic obstacles, Chance is forced to break the rules in order to procure cash for a sting operation, but the risks he takes snowball into an avalanche of violence and moral repercussions, leading to a morally ambiguous cul-de-sac from which there may be no return.
After the huge success and acclaim of his back-to-back duo of 'The French Connection' and 'The Exorcist', William Friedkin's career took a turn for the worse in the mid 1970s. His ambitious, big budget 'Sorcerer' (a remake of French classic 'The Wages of Fear') was drubbed by critics and ignored by audiences at the time. (The film later experienced a critical re-evaluation, however.) That was followed by a string of commercial disappointments such as 'The Brink's Job' and 'Deal of the Century'. By 1985, the director was in desperate need of a hit. Inspired by the pop culture phenomenon that 'Miami Vice' had stirred on television, Friedkin decided to cash in on some of his 'French Connection' cred with a new high octane crime thriller, 'To Live and Die in L.A.' Although reviews were mixed, the film was a box office hit and has aged very well over the years.
Between this movie and 'Manhunter', William Petersen really seemed on the verge of being a big star in the 1980s. For whatever reason, that didn't pan out until his run on 'CSI' starting in 2000. In 'To Live and Die in L.A.', Petersen stars as Richard Chance, a Secret Service agent on the trail of nefarious counterfeiter Eric Masters (a very young Willem Dafoe). Chance is a hothead and an adrenaline junkie, driven to obsession after Masters has his partner killed. When he and new partner John Vukovich (John Pankow, later Cousin Ira in 'Mad About You') can't requisition suitable funds for a sting operation, Chance formulates a new, ethically dubious plan to raise the money. It doesn't exactly work out as well as he hoped. Events soon spiral wildly out of control as a result.
Some of its less kind critics accused 'To Live and Die in L.A.' of being little more than a big screen 'Miami Vice' knockoff with the sex and violence cranked up to R rated levels. There's some truth in that. But, frankly, that's very much part of its appeal. The film is a slick, flashy thriller with a dynamic visual style cued directly from 'Vice' and from MTV (back when it was still culturally relevant). As he did in 'The French Connection', Friedkin plows through the plot with propulsive, kinetic energy. The theme song and score by New Wave band Wang Chung may be overused and repetitive, but I'll be damned if those tracks aren't still effective and exciting all these years later. The movie has nudity and gory violence, and plenty of top-notch action.
Yet the picture is more than just an exercise in empty stylistics. It actually has a very strong, tightly-plotted script rich with moral complexity. The characters are all well-realized, and the performances excellent. In addition to Petersen, Pankow, and Dafoe, the cast features very good supporting turns from John Turturro and Dean Stockwell. Friedkin even breaks the rules of the genre with some shocking plot twists that are still quite ballsy and uncompromising.
All that, and I haven't even talked about the car chase yet. Friedkin tops his own famous work in 'The French Connection' with a frankly insane action sequence veering the wrong way down the L.A. freeway at top speeds. It's amazing.
Unfortunately, William Friedkin's career comeback was short-lived. Although 'To Live and Die in L.A.' was a success, the director more or less lost his marbles afterwards, and went on to make some truly terrible movies like 'The Guardian' (the one about the evil tree, not the Coast Guard picture with Kevin Costner, which isn't so great either) and 'Jade'. Recently, he's been wasting his time desecrating his old films by tinting them goofy colors. Arguments can be made that some of his late-career pictures like 'Rules of Engagement' or 'Bug' are halfway decent. Or at least competent. I'm not quite sure I agree. For me, 'To Live and Die in L.A.' is the last hurrah of a major filmmaking talent just before his total burnout.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'To Live and Die in L.A.' is one of the rare few titles that has managed in recent months to creep out of the MGM Home Entertainment archives onto the Blu-ray format (courtesy of MGM's current distributor, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment). MGM has attempted to cobble together a 2-disc set by putting the movie and a trailer on a Blu-ray disc, and then simply shoving the 2003 Special Edition DVD in the case as well. Other than the trailer, all other bonus features are found on the DVD.
MGM had previously released the movie on Blu-ray in Japan back in 2008 with an MPEG-2 video encode. This new American release is not a duplicate of that disc. The movie has been given a fresh encoding with the AVC MPEG-4 codec.
The American Blu-ray has no annoying promos or trailers before the menu.
One year ago, William Friedkin's classic thriller 'The French Connection' was released on Blu-ray with a brand new remastered transfer personally supervised by the director. It was a terrible, terrible disgrace. For no rational reason whatsoever, Friedkin decided to impose some goofy color timing changes on the movie that left the whole thing looking like it had been colorized with a box of crayons. In his defense of this decision, the director claimed that he loved the new "pastel" colors and hoped to remaster all of his older movies with the same process.
Thankfully, Friedkin did not manage to get his grubby hands on 'To Live and Die in L.A.'. The film has been unmolested by his revisionist lunacy. This may simply be a matter of MGM being unwilling (or unable) to spend the money on a new transfer to his liking. If so, the studio's cheapness and financial problems worked out in our favor this time.
Firstly and most importantly, the movie's colors look natural and accurate. There are no purple glowing flesh tones here. The opening shot has a little banding, but colors are otherwise fine. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is fairly sharp and detailed, with nice crisp contrasts. The movie's photography is rather grainy, to emphasize the "gritty" subject matter. That grain hasn't always been digitized as well as it might have been. The 1.85:1 image a little noisy at times. Even so, all things considered, the disc looks pretty good.
[Update: Reader David pointed me to this video interview in which William Friedkin claims to have supervised the 'To Live and Die in L.A.' Blu-ray transfer. I'm not sure that I'm buying everything that Friedkin is selling in the interview. The Blu-ray's colors don't look as different from the DVD's as he insists, for example. Nonetheless, if Friedkin did in fact approve this transfer, it would seem that he's at least somewhat come to his senses since the 'French Connection' debacle.]
For a movie from 1985, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack on the Blu-ray also sounds pretty decent. The Wang Chung theme song and rockin' electronic score are delivered with pleasing auditory breadth across the front soundstage. Surround envelopment is mild but appropriate. The studio hasn't attempted to fiddle with the sound mix too much by adding any gimmicky directional effects or bloated bass.
The explosion that opens the picture may not shake anyone's walls, but has a reasonable kick. Gunshots also crack nicely. Dialogue is a little flat and the ADR work often stands out. That's pretty common for a movie of this era and budget. While 'To Live and Die in L.A.' may not be an auditory rollercoaster, it'll certainly do just fine for what it is.
As mentioned above, the Blu-ray disc in the case has only the movie and one trailer. The rest of the supplements are all on the DVD.
Some younger viewers may watch a movie like 'To Live and Die in L.A.' and call it "dated" because the fashions, music and filmmaking style are so rooted in the 1980s. That complaint doesn't hold much water for me. This is a movie set in a very specific time and place. Its style is appropriate to that setting. The film has endured as a crackerjack thriller with some terrific action, an excellent script, and a legendary car chase.
The Blu-ray edition has all-around decent audio and video quality. It's annoying that the supplements have been relegated to an old DVD in the same case, but at least the studio bothered to include them. The movie and disc are worthy of a purchase.