I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

To Live and Die in L.A.

I always knew the title to this one, because of that song by Wang Chung. But I never knew what exactly it was about. Turns out it’s loosely based on a novel by this guy Gerald Petievich. He was in the Secret Service, and the book was inspired by some of his experiences. So it’s supposed to be about the weirdness of that job, where one day you’re protecting the president of the United States and the next day you’re working for the treasury department so you’re just chasing some dude with counterfeit twenties.

This movie has the thumbprints of great filmatism smeared all over it. It has the kind of opening I’m a sucker for, the kind that throws you in the middle of something, sets the tone, then goes into the opening credits. Like a preamble or an overture. The main character Richard Chance (William Petersen) is on security detail for a Reagan speech (you just hear Reagan’s voice off screen, they don’t have Martin Sheen or anybody playing him). The guys are just kind of killing time when he notices something odd that leads him to the roof, where he finds an Islamic suicide bomber. (oh, shit.) He’s not able to talk him down but his partner climbs up the side of the roof and yanks the guy by the leg so that he explodes in mid-air, like a big balloon full of blood and chunks of meat. Then the two sit on the edge of the building to think about what has just happened. Chance says, “Let’s go get drunk and play cards” and it cuts into a stylish opening montage showing various images from the movie and that represent L.A.

To Live and Die in L.A.One sign of greatness: the title is printed in a font so big the title has to be split up to fit on the screen. This generally means the movie is gonna be awesome. I’m sure some shitty movies have figured that out and use big fonts to fake everybody out but as a general rule title filling entire screen = good movie.

More reasons it’s great: It has a compelling lead who you haven’t seen in many movies. (I kept wondering why I haven’t seen this guy in other stuff before I figured out he was the dude from CSI, only young and McConaghey-esque.) It has the confidence to abandon the plot to focus in on details, like the long montage illustrating step-by-step the process of counterfeiting bills. It has some knock-you-on-your-ass-and-then-help-you-half-way-up-but-then-say-‘psyche’-and-drop-you-back-on-your-ass-and-then-a-car-drives-by-and-splashes-a-puddle-on-you action setpieces. I think maybe the big car chase even tops director William Friedkin’s own THE FRENCH CONNECTION with its escalating mayhem, thrilling car POV shots and the way it’s both an exciting action scene and a major turning point for the characters. I didn’t know that the L.A. river basin was done before T2, or that wrong-way-on-the-freeway was done before RONIN.

And it’s unpredictable. You don’t necessarily know where it’s gonna go. Things don’t unfold exactly how they’re supposed to. For example, Willem Dafoe is this scary villain, but every time he gives somebody a beatdown he almost gets the tables turned on him first. He’s not untouchable. He gets his ass beat. The hero is vulnerable too, and flawed. But not a total fuckup. He’s heroic enough that you think he’s gonna learn a lesson and stop treating his girlfriend/informant so shitty. But let’s just say he might not. He has a dark side.

All of the actors are really good in this movie, most of them early in their careers, too. John Turturro for example had only played a few small roles before he stole the show here as a guy they nab with counterfeit money, and might get taken out before he can snitch. There’s also a good part for Steve James, the guy that played Michael Dudikoff’s sidekick Curtis “Before 50 Cent” Jackson in the AMERICAN NINJA movies.

On the DVD there’s a deleted scene that Friedkin says he doesn’t remember why he cut, and he wishes he could put it back in the movie but the only footage of it is a crappy video. The scene would’ve been near the end of the movie. Chance’s partner Vukovich (John Pankow) is about to go to the big climactic showdown. But first he goes to some apartment building. You’re not sure what he’s doing. He knocks on a door and a woman we’ve never seen in the movie comes out. It becomes apparent from the conversation that this is his wife, but they’re separated. And he tells her he wants to patch things up. But it’s late at night, he seems crazy, he knows she doesn’t want him there, so she tries to get him to leave, and they get into an argument.

It’s a great scene and it’s not in the movie, but it would’ve fit right in there. That’s the kind of movie we’re dealing with, a movie that does have an exciting, dangerous showdown, but first wants to take a little detour about a character’s life. What’s wrong with it, what he wants to fix about it. And at the same time it shows you just how scared he is because obviously he wouldn’t be doing this if he wasn’t thinking he could die.

Friedkin reminds me alot of Michael Mann. Both of them are these macho guys directing macho guy movies, making buddies with cops and criminals who they use as technical advisers, bragging about their adventures on their commentary tracks. On THIEF Michael Mann hired a real safecracker so he could show how a safe is really cracked, on this one Friedkin hired a real counterfeiter so he could show how money is really counterfeited. According to IMDb trivia, Mann even tried to sue Friedkin over this movie, claiming it was a ripoff of MIAMI VICE. (He lost, then he dranka mojito.)

But Friedkin is less pretentious and makes movies with a quicker pace. He’s more interested and skilled at putting thrills in his movies. And he seems slightly less full of himself. Very slightly. TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. was not a big hit but seeing it now I think it was very influential. I’ll be damned if little twentysomething Shane Black didn’t have this movie on the brain when he wrote the first LETHAL WEAPON. It even has the partner about to retire who says “I’m too old for this shit.” And it has a slick style that I think sort of mutated into the Tony Scott pre-midlife crisis style. Hell, maybe even the midlife crisis Tony Scott style, because every time they show a title on the screen it uses a different font. That’s the 1985 version of flying subtitles and attack of the Avid farts. But it’s kind of cool.

By the way, Friedkin found William Petersen in theater, but he had done one movie role before: he played a bartender in THIEF.

You know, people have been recommending this one to me for years, and there was at least one close call before. I went to the video store with the intent of renting it. I had the box in my hand. I ran into a buddy who’s into shit like this and I asked him, “You said this one was good right?” And of course he said it was, and while talking it up he mentioned that the soundtrack was by Wang Chung. I didn’t know it was gonna be that kind of party, so I put it back.

But I’m here to tell you that even for those of us who don’t necessarily wanna have fun tonight, and who most certainly do not want to Wang Chung tonight, this is a good picture. I don’t generally like something to be dated to the ’80s, and especially musically. But this one captures the era well, coming across more like a great period piece or time capsule than like somehting that’s dated. And the soundtrack fits that real well. They only sing on the opening title track and the rest of it they just sit there and keyboard away and it works real good for the mood. And I don’t think this could be intended but the associations I have with that kind of cheesy ’80s white people keyboard music perfectly captures the heart and soul of the setting and the topic of counterfeiting. It’s slick and electronic (fake), it’s trying to be hip, it probaly has a ponytail and sunglasses on.

Matter of fact, I can’t really say this captures the essence of that side of L.A., because I’ve never lived there, but based on the times I’ve been there this really does a good job of capturing how it all looks to me. At any rate it’s a very solid and original crime/action/police procedural type movie. Everybody have fun tonight.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, November 21st, 2007 at 6:40 pm and is filed under Action, Crime, Drama, Reviews, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

6 Responses to “To Live and Die in L.A.”

  1. I love this movie and like Vern, had to hunt for along time. Finally when it went to DVD I bought it and have passed it on to fans of CSI. I have actually never watched an episode of CSI cuz everytime I put it on I think, why is the awesome actor from Manhunter and TLADILA so damn fat and tired looking? Great review ‘that kind of party’ Also, very gratified to see that Vern agrees that Miami Vice is a great movie.

  2. Watched this movie last night and really really dug it. This review is spot on as to the film’s strengths, but one thing I’m surprised Vern didn’t mention is the ending. Definitely has to be one of the ultimate “No fucking way that just happened,” moments. I actually had to rewind the thing to watch the scene over, because I couldn’t believe the insane “Fuck you” Friedkin threw at the audience. Right up there with The Departed’s elevator scene, and No Country for Old Men’s switcheroo.

  3. Yeah that ending is classic.

    Hell that whole movie is, even that (ridiculed) soundtrack.

    Like how it begins as a typical actioneer, ends completely different.

  4. What a great fucking movie! I don’t want to give anything away or praise it too much, because if you haven’t seen it you should just jump in clueless and enjoy the ride. Every piece of dialogue is perfect. Every silence is pregnant with detail and edginess. Every motivation is clear or deliciously ambiguous, and the clarity you crave is just on the horizon a couple scenes later. It’s a tight script, expertly filmatized, but the end result is an expansive, beautiful, provocative, satisfying hell of a film.

    Also, Vern’s right about the opening.

    Almost flawless, but for a couple nitpicks I have about 2 minor things that could be semi-satisfactorily explained by the quirks of the characters involved in them.

    1) Leith, played by John Turturro, uses counterfeit $20s to buy his plane ticket? While he’s carrying a bunch of counterfeits? He couldn’t pay the $45 airfare with straight money? But this decision could be explained by his being a lowlife criminal; that’s the stupid shit lowlife criminals do. On the other hand, he’s clearly not that stupid, b/c his escape is pretty clever.

    2) Willem Dafoe was more committed to burning his masterpieces than to getting away with crime? That makes him an interesting character and a crazy cool badass villain with multiple juxtapositions, but. . . That whole finale in the flames struck me as a tad too far-fetched & awkward, but I forgive it b/c it still mostly works and it offers up some of that symbolic, non-literal narrative shit that I always dig.

    I guess I’m not thrilled about the portrayal of Secret Service agents on POTUS detail as being less than the best of the best, either, now that I think of it, but the ineptness of the feds (falling asleep on a stakeout, smoking & drinking & playing cards during a job, etc.) is part of the appeal and the awesome badass tone of the movie.

    Everyone who comes to this website should see TO LIVE & DIE IN L.A..

    What a great fucking movie.

  5. Definitely agree with Mouth. This is a 10/10 mega-classic to me. The action and especially car scenes are some of the best I’ve ever seen. oh, and being into 80s music, I dig the soundtrack, too. lol.

  6. So, while working yesterday I found myself with the title theme stuck in my head for some random reason and figured I’d need to watch this, one of my favorite non-horror/sci-fi flicks from the 80’s. Fast forward to this morning. I limbered myself out of bed and dug out my VHS copy (I have a regular old, fat-ass TV in my bedroom hooked up to all those outmoded devices; VCR, Playstation 1, etc.) popped it in and settled back down. Still a fantastic example of neo-noir that only the 80’s could’ve given us, but one element kept popping up in my head the entire time.

    I’m sure this has been discussed somewhere so maybe I’m late to the party, and I seem to recall reading Friedkin mention this element before, but the meta element of counterfeit and fakery is beautifully entwined with the ENTIRE narrative.

    Dafoe is ostensibly an “artist” but really a crook. His GF, as oh-so subtly revealed in the end is with him for her own faked reasons. In fact, she runs off with someone else in the end. Stockwell is a lawyer who seems to be lying and playing everyone involved. Chance is, on the surface, a bastion of law and order but really a loose cannon who will use anyone and everything to his own ends. His “girlfriend” is really just an object to him to be used for info and sex, not love. She, in turn, is using him to keep herself out of jail and seemingly doesn’t really care for him; hell, if I read it right, she set him up. Turturro pretends to help but fakes it all for his escape. The supposed jewel buyer turns out to be a fed undercover. So on and so on. Who’s the “protagonist” of the film even ends up being someone other than we thought.

    It’s actually really impressive to me that there’s virtually not a single person or event in the film that doesn’t have a hidden agenda to it. That IS noir in a nutshell and this film fucking bleeds it all over the streets. The only thing that I think may have been genuine in the film was Chance’s friendship with this older partner, which ended up being what fucks everyone. Vulkovich might’ve been feeling remorse for crossing the line of the law but really, I think, he’s just more concerned with keeping his own ass out of jail. It all comes around to a beautiful denouement where Vulkovich becomes a counterfeit Chance. A fake trying to be the real deal.

    In fact, as a parallel to the show-stopping counterfeiting montage this entire film seems to be a “how to make a counterfeit lawman” sequence. Vulkovich starts as the raw material and through arcane processes becomes a fake symbol of order. In fact, you could argue that Dafoe’s character created not only counterfeit money but a counterfeit man by the end of it all. So, so brilliant.

    But I’m truly surprised that there’s never much mention of the very last shot in the film. It’s so inexplicable and ambiguous that you can read a dozen interpretations in it. I personally believe that it’s symbolic on multiple levels but whatever it means, it ends up being each and every viewers’ own decision to make.

    “I wonder why we spend this time together, will this be the way I live my life forever”

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