William Friedkin, like many of the directors who rose to prominence in the 1970s, is a curious case. The French Connection and The Exorcist are, I think, indisputable masterpieces, but much of what he's done since then has been, well, uneven at best: Cruising exudes a certain creepy kind of authenticity, but is it really a watchable film? The Guardian feels like a ripoff of The Exorcist with druid mythology and some weird tree thrown in for supernatural color. Blue Chips is passable, but Jade is god awful – a disaster that only an A-list hack like Joe Eszterhas could conceive. And in the last decade, Rules of Engagement was forgettable, The Hunted horrible, and Bug, well, it has its fans but it's certainly not for everyone.
The 1985 film To Live and Die in L.A., meanwhile, is generally regarded as one of his masterpieces, a triumph of nihilistic detachment and visceral energy. Newly released on Blu-ray by the good folks at Fox Home Entertainment, it seemed like a good time to revisit the film and see how well it holds up against decades upon decades of determined cop movies, much less Friedkin's own filmography.
Released on November 1, 1985, Friedkin's adaptation of Gerlad Petievich's novel of the same name starred William Peterson and John Pankow as two secret service agents on the trail of an expert counterfeiter, played by Willem Dafoe. The film opened with a $3.6 million haul on its first weekend and went on to earn some $17 million in receipts, far exceeding the $6 million budget allocated for the original production.
Although the film received no nominations for major awards, critical reception was mixed upon release but has grown more positive in subsequent years. To Live and Die in L.A. currently enjoys an 86 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
What Still Works: Friedkin was essentially his generation's Paul Greengrass – a legitimate artist with a deceptively shaggy sort of execution – and as a thinking man's action movie To Live and Die in L.A. is an engaging, exhilarating thriller. The action scenes are beautifully executed and expertly handled, and better yet, are framed within a story that sustains their energy even when the action isn't physical.
Furthermore, the film carries a certain kind of energy that definitely feels reminiscent of the 1980s, recalling the cool, picturesque detachment of Adrian Lyne, Tony Scott and Paul Schrader. At the same time, the film maintains a vitality that keeps it relevant to contemporary audiences, presaging the icy momentum of subsequent films like Heat. This powerful visual sense is of course aided by Friedkin's screenplay, which keeps tension balanced on a razor's edge, and its intermingling themes of professional responsibility and personal determination give it a continued relevance even today.
Finally, there is a wealth of scenes that remain completely unforgettable, starting with the car chase, which not only rivals the one in French Connection but ranks among the best in movie history. The showdown prior to the chase is harrowing and violent, and many scenes stand in stark juxtaposition with one another, create indelible sequences that linger in the memory and prompt repeated mulling once the film has reached its bleak, cathartic conclusion.
What Doesn't Work: While its release in 1985 almost certainly meant it established the action-movie conventions that have since become boilerplate storytelling structure, in retrospect its narrative follows an almost painfully familiar direction. For example, the main character Richard Chance's partner is murdered two days before retirement, setting in motion the film's entire plot, and sort of unleashing Chance's unfettered, devil-may-care attitude to catching the killer. Typically, he feeds off of the adrenaline rush, the flirtation with death that comes from death-defying scenarios, but his physical passion and professional obsession is matched only by his personal emotional detachment, manifested in a tenuous and occasionally tender but mostly utilitarian (if not outright misogynistic) relationship with one woman who loves him.
While I definitely appreciated its sense of commitment to Chance's pursuit at all costs, Friedkin's unflinching nihilism, including one of the bleakest, most effed-up endings I've ever seen in an action movie, really kind of undid much of the movie's entertainment value, even if it strengthened its portraiture of this dangerous lifestyle. As a result, I can see how many moviegoers found the film distasteful at the time in which it was released, not the least of which because many '80s action movies reaffirmed a clear sense of morality, and To Live and Die in L.A. possesses none of that certainty – except that anyone will do anything for themselves, at anyone else's expense, at any time.
What's The Verdict: I'm actually somewhere in the middle on To Live and Die in L.A. Interestingly, the '80s-wallpaper sets, costumes and music all work just fine today, but it's the film's strange and unrelenting pessimism that undermine it from being something effective as a film you want to watch repeatedly in the way you might want to with, say, the aforementioned Heat or even The French Connection. The bottom line is that these are some miserable and horrible characters, and as committed as the movie is to portraying them honestly, showing every beatdown and escape as graphically en route to their triumph or defeat, To Live and Die in L.A. is a film that operates on such a massively pessimistic scale that it's hard to embrace it other than as a meditation on those lifestyles and personalities bereft of more conventional expectations of being entertained.