Genre: Crime Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 56 min.
Release Date: November 1st, 1985 MPAA Rating: R
Director: William Friedkin Actors: William Petersen, Willem Dafoe, John Pankow, Debra Feuer, John Turturro, Darlanne Fleugel, Dean Stockwell, Steve James, Michael Greene
n December 20th (an onscreen designation that is followed by countless others, spanning a few weeks, which are terribly unnecessary), during a speech by a top politician, United States Secret Service agent Richard Chance (William Petersen) plays poker in the presidential suite, waiting for his shift to begin. Just as he goes on duty, he discovers an assassination attempt by a suicide bomber, which he successfully foils – but not before his partner Jimmy Hart (Michael Greene) absorbs a bit of the resultant explosion. Of course, Jimmy’s getting awfully old for this line of work.
A day or so later, Richard celebrates winning a bet (for base jumping) at a local bar, as well as a retirement party for Jimmy. But Jimmy still has three days left before he’s officially finished, which means he’ll spend some of that time following up a lead on suspected counterfeiter Eric Masters (Willem Dafoe). For this simple task, he insists that Chance not accompany him, as it would be redundant for two people to investigate the same person – which is not only ill-advised by his partner, but also something that seems reckless, potentially deadly, and perhaps against department policies. Sure enough, when poking around in Masters’ compound, Jimmy finds himself on the receiving end of a shotgun.
Two days later, the police raid Masters’ warehouse in Lancaster, but it has been completely cleaned out; all of his printing and painting equipment have vanished. When Richard discovers Hart’s mutilated corpse in the dumpster outside, he’s outraged and distraught. Ravenous for revenge, he determines to catch Masters no matter the cost. And a straight-laced new partner, Vukovich (John Pankow), won’t stand in his way. Meanwhile, Masters himself runs afoul of the law, becoming a target for surveillance, with his mules either getting locked up or his contacts plotting double-crosses.
Pervasive rock music (clearly identifying this as a product of the ’80s) sets the stage for this heavy-hitting drama, which aims to continue writer/director William Friedkin’s examination of the darker side of crime. The violence is immediately gruesome (more than one person takes a bullet to the face), the language is coarse, and the nudity is graphic. There’s a love story here, too, though it’s between Chance and an ex-con informant (Darlanne Fluegel as Ruth Lanier), whom he treats abrasively and sees in his off hours primarily for sex. The characters (whether on the right or wrong side of the law) are largely disagreeable; sympathy for anyone is incredibly hard-won. Even when Chance is doing something decent (he’s mostly uncaring and imprudent), he’s either punished for it or made to look foolhardily incompetent (which, on occasion, he is) or insignificant in the face of political machinations.
“I can do whatever I want.” Although the heroes are generally indistinguishable from the villains (at least in their vigilante tactics and unethical tendencies), Dafoe certainly makes for a convincing maniac. He even looks deranged while simply drinking a soda. And he has a female accomplice (Debra Feuer), who is every bit as much of a sociopath.
There’s no mystery, as all of the players are thoroughly detailed, and the survivors or collateral damage are rarely affecting, but Friedkin once again capably handles action sequences. Undoubtedly aware of his impact on chase scenes with 1971’s “The French Connection,” Friedkin not only wished to make another epic chase, but he also wanted to outdo himself. From a pursuit in an airport; to a dual foot chase through an alley and along a bridge; to the centerpiece vehicle chase (involving plenty of cars and a train), which spans many locations, numerous minutes, and realistic stunts down the wrong way of a Long Beach freeway, “To Live and Die in L.A.” bears the auteur’s mark. Although it takes the majority of the picture, a couple of striking deviations from the standard police procedural appear at the close, turning this endeavor into something unique yet not entirely satisfying.
– Mike Massie