William Peterson (Manhunter) and Willem Dafoe (Platoon) engage in a showdown of cunning maneuvers designed to thwart each other in this enthralling action/crime drama from William Friedkin – the Academy Award winning director of The French Connection (1971). US Secret Service Agent Richard Chance (Petersen) forces himself to chalk up a score with vengeance and is finished with abiding by the law. Swearing to takedown a homicidal counterfeiter – Ric Masters (Dafoe) – by any means necessary, the elements of danger and reward grow higher; but will Agent Chance’s mania with revenge eventually bring about his demise? Masters does what he does best – creating fraudulent currency. Agent Chance does what he does best – trying to stop guys like Masters. The game of cat and mouse between the two men on opposite sides of the law carry the heavy weight of this film forward with full-force; William Friedkin fully-realized this LA crime saga of epic proportions to the silver-screen with artistic flair. Having revisited this film from 1985 (remastered on Bluray), one can see the resemblance of its plot to another cat & mouse masterpiece that would arrive exactly 10 years later – Michael Mann’s Heat (1995) where Al Pacino played a Lieutenant attempting to takedown a notorious bank robber portrayed by Robert De Niro. It’s William Peterson vs. Willem Dafoe in To Live and Die in L.A., and with Friedkin behind the camera, we’re in for an eye-widening and stylish crime/thriller.
Foremostly, the musical score composed and performed by the English new wave band, Wang Chung, is a cinematic rarity; an incredibly unique idea implemented by director William Friedkin. Formed in 1980, the band, Wang Chung, consists of Nick Feldman, Jack Hues and Darren Costin, who famously named themselves “Yellow Bell” in Chinese – the first note in Chinese classical music. Their title track “To Live and Die in LA”, in addition to their ‘80s new wave hit “Dance Hall Days” are just two of the many songs and beats performed and composed throughout the film’s entire length – just shy of 2 hours. Wang Chung’s music plays heavily throughout the picture, lightening up the mood and making the film ‘80s hip with electronic-synth and new wave beats. Director William Friedkin doesn’t use any music during intense action sequences, resulting in a nerve-racking experience; a thriller, nonetheless. It’s very rare for an electronic music band to score an entire film; Michael Mann’s directorial debut Thief (1981) was scored by the German Electronic music band, Tangerine Dream. This is what makes William Friedkin so singularly personified as a great director, to have the film’s entire music performed by Wang Chung.
To Live and Die in LA was considered William Friedkin’s long-anticipated return to the streets of crime since winning the Academy Award of Best Director for The French Connection (1971). The film depicts an authentic portrait of Los Angeles, opening with a December 20th title card superimposed over LA’s gorgeous lava sunrise; emphasizing the fact that the sun is out and rising in LA during the Christmas season – where Angelinos and tourists can go to Venice Beach wearing shorts in the winter. The title song “To Live and Die in LA” emphasizes on a lyric, “in the heat of the day” – winters are hot in the deserts of LA. When US Secret Service Agent Richie Chance is on duty, protecting the 40th President Ronald Reagan at his hotel suite prior to an upcoming political speech, he becomes suspicious of a frantic man making a noise down the hall. Richie ends up on the roof of the building, tracking down an extremist Muslim suicide bomber shouting “Death to Israel” as Jimmy Hart (Michael Greene) sweeps the terrorists leg from below, throwing him off the roof as he sacrifices himself.
Over the opening credits, Friedkin cinematographs painting portraits in conjunction with close-ups of characters we haven’t met, foreshadowing events from the future, and getting us primed for the world we’re about to delve into. We see neon red and green opening credit titles over LA city imagery and public citizens exchanging counterfeit bills, then Willem Dafoe’s character Ric Masters burning an art piece on the wall in flames. Masters is an artist who paints, it’s his way of calming down amid his murderous counterfeit trade. Like Masters artistry, William Friedkin makes sure every frame in the film appears like a portrait; staying true to its representation as a motion picture. To Live and Die in LA is a patient film; a fully-realized concept, adapted from a novel written by Gerald Petievich (Boiling Point, The Sentinel).
The element of the man/man formula often depicted primarily as a peripheral element in action/crime films of the ‘80s occurs multiple times throughout To Live and Die in LA. “Estoy aqui!” Richie says “I’m here” in a Spanish shout-out as he and partner Jimmy enter a bar for drinks in a celebration of Jimmy’s retirement just three sleeps away. When Richie and Jimmy walk outside the bar, a male bromance moves to the forefront. “You push too hard, you take it too personally. You’re never gonna reach retirement.” Jimmy warns Richie. “I’m not interested in retirement.” Richie responds. “You’re such a hotdog.” Jimmy says. This scene foreshadows Richie’s inevitable fate, in relation to the film’s title, since his character is fearlessly strung on fighting crime. The essence of their partnership here is instantaneously established through body language and subliminal messages. Richie hands Jimmy a retirement gift packaged in a silver-pole. As Richie stands comfortably with his hands on his belt buckle, Jimmy opens it to find a fishing rod. “Can I come and use it?” Richie asks, peculiarly. Later in the film, when Richie and his new partner John (John Vukovich) stakeout a house under surveillance, Richie smiles warm-heartedly as he sits down next to John, “You should take a jump with me. Greatest feeling in the world, it feels like your balls are in your throat.” Richie says. “I think I’ll take a pass, partner.” John says, reluctantly and uncomfortably.
Richie is satisfying unto himself, through having an erotic affair with Ruth (Darlanne Fluegel), a woman on parole whom he uses as a lead for capturing Masters. Prior to having sex, while Ruth lays naked in bed, Richie preens himself; removing his buckle, flexing his muscles, tossing his shirt on her naked body, suggesting for her to put it on; he’s more obsessed with his own male body, than her beauty. After he engages in intercourse with her, he treats her badly and threatens to revoke her parole if she doesn’t comply with his demands. Instead of attending to her, he grooms himself in the mirror. The homoerotic element continues more explicitly in the third act when Masters walks up to Richie at close range, standing inches away from his body and invading his physical space. “Is this my package?” Masters asks, while smiling at Richie and removing the money belt wrapped around the erogenous zone of his waist. After Master’s feels the texture of the cash, Richie asks, “Look good?” And Masters responds suggestively, locking eyes with Richie and a smile, “You’re beautiful.” He says. These are the instances where we sense an underlying homoerotic fable occurring behind the veil of intense crime and action disguised as male romantic tension. But it’s not just with males, Masters’ girlfriend Bianca (Debra Feuer), locks eyes with her dance partner Serena (Jane Leeves) while he removes her bra and licks her breast; Serena smiles suggestively back at Bianca, in yet another instance of homoeroticism; the pleasure Masters gives Bianca is channeled to Serena through eye contact.
Ric Masters is a professional counterfeiter and Friekdin depicts his fraudulent techniques like the artist that Masters is. Perhaps, suggesting that, to be a professional counterfeiter, one must have the finesse of a drawing hand and be finite with details – like an artist. In a bizarre and twisted character trait, Masters’ counterfeiting supports his art and when he burns his art to flames, he turns to counterfeiting to keep the cycle going. He presses the money, colors, prints and cuts it, then throws it in a clothing dryer – this entire sequence is magnificent. The counterfeit scene early in the first act is conveyed in extreme close-ups and is almost perceived as a tutorial on how to print fraudulent currency. Between Masters’ art portraits, his counterfeiting and Bianca’s operatic dance plays, William Friedkin manages to implement a wide variety of arts and crafts with the film’s colorful production design; trailers and trucks in the Lancaster sequences where Masters’ completes his counterfeiting schemes are painted neon green and blue; they pop with radiating glows in the foreground while juxtaposed with the mountainous landscape in the background.
The Vincent Thomas Bridge (named after the California assemblyman of San Pedro) is portrayed as its own character in this film. The 1500 foot-long suspension bridge that crosses the LA harbor (connecting San Pedro to Long Beach) becomes a character of its own considering the fact it makes its presence known in over a half-dozen scenes throughout the movie. Richie’s “balls in your throat” adrenaline rush comes from his habit of bungee-jumping off the bridge. When we first see Richie jump-off, Friedkin makes it appear like he’s committing suicide, until we see his foot tied to an elastic cord. It’s a bit eerie in hindsight, considering legendary film director Tony Scott (Man on Fire, True Romance) jumped off the same bridge to his death in 2012. Nevertheless, the bridges arch, beams, abutments, and superstructure is painted a neon green that perfectly adds to the vibrancy of Friedkin’s vision. Richie Chance’s hobby of bungee-jumping off the bridge matches his gung-ho mentality as a secret service agent who’s “uninterested in retirement” – it’s as if he’s on a suicide mission. Even in a later car chase scene, where Richie tries to escape from the swarms of FBI units down the LA riverbed and onto the opposite side of the 710 freeway, Friedkin shows us flashbacks of him jumping off the bridge; almost as Richie’s longing to be free, in that moment in the car.
William Friedkin’s blocking is flawless on film and the editor M. Scott Smith (The Crow) makes perfectly timed edits, leaving the frames shot by cinematographer Robby Muller (Dead Man) to play out in long-takes. The sun drenched landscape, lava red sunrise, chaotic freeways, the still-air with no breeze, grimy alleys and byways are visionary perspectives of Los Angeles captured brilliantly by William Friedkin and his filmmaking crew. The film consists of a variety of chase sequences on the LA riverbed, Richie’s car driving through the 710 freeway in the opposite direction and a unique idea for 1985, in shooting a foot chase inside the LAX airport running atop the escalator. Even with Friedkin’s masterful blocking, much of the film is shot as if it’s really happening; it’s captured in a realistic way. The spontaneity makes it appear authentic. There’s another East LA car chase sequence through the Warehouse District and legend has it the 710 freeway was blocked-off for two consecutive weekends during the making of To Live and Die in LA with hundreds of extras driving cars and big-rigged semi-trucks.
To Live and Die in LA is a well-conceived story that depicts a game of cat and mouse with sublayers that spread out to different directions with an ensemble of supporting characters, resembling a similar plot format implemented in Michael Mann’s LA crime masterpiece, Heat. Many scenes in To Live and Die in LA are shot around San Pedro and Long Beach – an underrated southwest side of Los Angeles in the South Bay region. The characters in the film make references to Lancaster and Pasadena; two cities spanning Los Angeles County to its vast limits of the north and northeast. The Vincent Thomas bridge is almost its own character considering we see it at least a half dozen times. And with Wang Chung’s new wave music in the background, To Live and Die in LA proves to be a cult-classic film that stands the test of time. It’s in the ending where we see Agent Chance’s mentee and partner, John, arrive to Ruth’s apartment, wearing a different wardrobe; one similar to Richie’s. John is hardened and edgy now. When he accuses Ruth of framing them with the FBI, he tells her that she’s to work as an informant for him; Friedkin cuts away to a flashback of Richie from an earlier scene in Ruth’s apartment, and we come to realize that John has not only taken Richie’s place in Ruth’s life, but has become Richie, altogether.