Although there is very little doubt that William Friedkin is a talented, varied and periodically excellent filmmaker, there are certain films in his oeuvre that remain criminally under seen and under appreciated – To Live and Die In L.A. being the prime example.
Friedkin is able to make a tough, murky crime film firmly planted in everything great that was the 80s in American cinema with very little, if any, of the bad. In this deceptively simple tale of counterfeiting we get to know everyone: the mules, the middlemen, the cops, the makers, the buyers and even the lawyers that keep everything "legal." Bathed in a damn near giallo style of reds, greens and purples, the film lets the audience smell the sweat and grit every step of the way. Although the screenplay is far from great (and even descends into awkward one liners that don't function at all), when it works, it works like a perfectly run machine. During those scenes of excellence, it's easy to find oneself lost into a world of neo-noir, where every line is akin to a loaded gun, every breath and bead of sweat becomes visceral, morality is an archaic myth with no place in this story, and every burst of Peckinpah-esque violence feels like an assault on every one of the viewer’s already heightened senses.
Thankfully, Friedkin has a deft handle on when and when not to use the fantastic (if a little goofy) score and songs from Wang Chung. The contrast of the pitch-black story unfolding with the brief, discotheque-ready musical interludes just makes the whole thing feel a little skanky in the best way possible. But the moments of near-transcendence come when we are left with no music. This film holds a firm place in the car chase sub-genre for an exhilarating, exhausting and extensive chase only bested by the likes of (Friedkin’s own earlier film) The French Connection and of course, Bullitt.
The cast is pretty solid all around. William Petersen is fantastic here, long before he threw the towel in and settled into C.S.I. Friedkin's smartest choice with this film was making our "protagonist" a real person. Rather than a simple black and white story of good vs. evil, all of our characters float freely between what is "moral" or right, with nearly everyone taking care of themselves and throwing others under the bus without question when they deem it necessary. This of course ties back around to the neo-noir aspects that really root the entire film. Willem Dafoe has surely one of his greatest performances here as a soul-tortured artist who burns any real artistic output and focuses his skills on counterfeiting for what seems to be the majority of Los Angeles. John Turturro and Dean Stockwell don't necessarily have a lot to work with here, but they remain memorable in their respective roles. We even get a nice little turn from Robert Downey, Sr.
If you miss the days when Hollywood wasn't all that worried about you walking out of the theatre with a phony smile and sense that everything is okay, then this film is for you. For the most part it holds nothing back (it’s from the days when male and female could be naked on screen and no one lost their minds) and brings more energy, passion and vigor than any film of the like in recent memory. Crime films should be tough and they shouldn't end on an up note just because it feels better that way. Agree? Then you're in the right place.- William Morris, House Manager, Sie Film Center