Saturday, September 26, 2015

To Live and Die in L.A.

Spoilers ensue, so be warned.

The great irony of To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) is that our hero, a Secret Service agent, looks more like a criminal than our villain, a counterfeiter who is strangely the most authentic human being in the movie. In a narrative where there are so many double crosses, undercover sting operations, setups, reversals of fortune, attorneys playing both sides of the law, and surprises, it is the villain, Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe) who is the reliable, steady fulcrum we can measure everything against.

"My reputation speaks for itself," Masters tells our undercover agents when they try to set up a sting to nab him. "Everybody knows Rick Masters won't go near a job without front money. You should know that I never fucked a customer out of his front money." That Masters, a painter who applies the same level of care and craft to his counterfeit money as he does to his art, also kills people and flagrantly breaks the law goes with the turf.

Meanwhile, our hero, Richard Chance (William Peterson) is the type of loose cannon cop who gives loose cannon cops a bad name. Sure his longtime partner is murdered by Masters, and he wants to bring down a notorious criminal, but his methods leave a lot to be desired. He violates agency procedure, loses a key witness (after insulting the judge into signing custody over to him), and threatens suspects. "I'm gonna bag Masters, and I don't give a shit how I do it," he declares.

But is Chance so noble? More than anything else, he comes off as an adrenaline junkie than anything else. Early on, we see him base jump off a bridge, and during a car chase, he seems to really enjoy the thrill of it all. He blackmails an informant, Ruth (Darlanne Fluegel), for information and sex, threatening to have her parole revoked if she stops helping him, and then doesn't pay her for what help she does give him.

Chance's personality is never more questionable than after he forces his new partner, Vukovich (John Pankow), to go along with a scheme to get the money to set up Masters. See, partly due to policy, partly to Chance's low standing with the agency, the two can't get the $30,000 they need to make a deal with Masters so they can catch him in the act. Using a tip from Ruth, the two decide to rob an Asian gangster of $50,000. Things go wrong, the gangster is killed, and a chase ensues through freeway traffic that the agents are lucky to get away from alive. Chance is exhilarated while Vukovich is a mess, barely holding it together (that shot below of him peering through the cracked, shot-out window mirrors his fragile psyche). It gets worse when they learn the Asian gangster was really an undercover FBI agent on a sting. Chance doesn't really care while Vukovich is guilt-ridden.

That chase deserves more discussion. The movie is directed by William Friedkin, who also did The French Connection. This chase belongs in the same league as the famed chase in that earlier movie. Not only is it effective from a character standpoint (Chance is in his element, Vukovich is having a panic attack in the back seat), but it's filmed as well as any chase can be. Friedkin utilizes a number of  first-person perspective shots, so it feels like we're riding out in front of the car as it barrels headlong through oncoming traffic, and it is exhilarating and intense. At one point, the agents drive the wrong way on the highway, facing off against dozens of cars, and Friedkin uses long, wide shots to show off the scope of the road and the number of vehicles. It is a tremendous technical accomplishment.

Which brings us to the climax. Again, I emphasize spoilers, but this deserves mention. With the money in hand, Chance and Vukovich meet with Masters, and once the deal is made, they try to arrest him. In the process, Chance is killed by a shotgun blast to the head, and Masters gets away in a shocking, unpredictable development. Chance lived recklessly, and he died recklessly. Very fitting, but talk about a ballsy move on the part of the filmmakers to kill off the hero at that point. Vukovich ends up tracking and killing Masters in his art studio as the place burns to the ground. Later, he visits Ruth, who says she plans to leave the city, but he won't let her because she works for him now. The decent, by-the-book, honest agent now carries on his brash partner's legacy. What a perfect ending.

To Live and Die in L.A. is up there with Friedkin's finest work. Parts of it don't hold so well because they've become so stock (like the partner killed two days to retirement and who actually says "I'm getting too old for this shit" long before Danny Glover made it famous), and the prologue, which features Chance foiling a terrorist bomber, is completely extraneous. Still, the film remains a first-class crime drama. While it lacks a sympathetic protagonist, it does not lack a compelling one.

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