My love affair with “Top Gun” is “interesting” partially because while I am fully aware it is a movie of The 80’s, it never comes across dated to me. It never feels overtly like an 80’s movie, and I suspect this has to do with the fact that I actually saw and first fell for “Top Gun” in The 80’s. That movie was not and never has been Then, not to me. It's Now, because I was there for it. “To Live In Die In L.A.”, on the other hand, William Friedkin’s stone cold thriller, is nearly thirty years old, released in 1985, and watching it for the first time Now makes it feel like Then. And in a strange way, I’m glad it took me this long to catch up with it. I mean that as a compliment.
This film is full-on, pedal-to-the-medal 80’s, and straight away with its opening credits contrasting blood red with lycra green and a sunrise that looks like it strolled in straight off the set of a Bangles video. The score, performed by Wang Chung(!), churning, is synthesized and omnipresent. At one point, William Petersen, playing our protagonist Richard Chance, has so many buttons undone on his shirt that when he throws a leather jacket on over top of it and zips it up halfway, you’d be hard pressed to tell that he is wearing a shirt. Unquestionably, the primary stylistic motivator of “To Live and Die In L.A.” was “Miami Vice”, which would have been a few episodes into its second season when this film was released.
Ah, but don’t presume “To Live and Die In L.A.” bore no influence of its own. Consider the requisite grizzly veteran (Michael Greene) who is three days from his requisite retirement saying to his brash young partner at the conclusion of the requisite opening action sequence: “I’m getting too old for this shit.” In pop culture that line is generally attributed to Danny Glover’s Roger Murtaugh in “Lethal Weapon.” “Lethal Weapon” was released in 1987. As stated, “To Live and Die In L.A.” was released in 1985. Make of that, readers, what you will.
Greene’s grizzly vet, Jimmy Hart (you read that right), is, of course, offed in the early-going (suddenly and violently, because every death here is sudden and violent) so that his partner, the thrill-seeking, base-jumping Richard Chance (“You make it too personal”) can vow revenge against his murderer by any means necessary.
One of the neatest elements of the film, which Friedken also wrote, based on Gerald Petievich’s novel, is how it essentially picks up its story midstream. Our villain, Rick Masters, a part-time pyromaniac and modern artist played by Willem Dafoe with maximum androgynous pizzazz (at one point we momentarily think he has just made out with a man, until “he” is revealed as a “she”, but I can only imagine 80’s moussed televangelists crapping their pants at that one), has been getting away with a highline counterfeiting scheme for years. He has been getting away with it for so long, in fact, hat he is brazenly flaunts his deeds right in front of the five-oh. Undercover agents try to bust Masters on selling of phony dead presidents for real ones except that he demands upfront payments of real cash so exorbitant the undercover agents don’t have the means to cover the asking price. This detail is precisely what sets Richard Chance on an express elevator to hell, goin’ down.
In a way, “To Live and Die In L.A.” echoes the future “Training Day”, if we had seen what led to the criminality and corruption of Denzel Washington’s shouting, stomping narcotics officer. Chance is a daredevil and hellbent and convinces his new partner (John Pankow), a sorta goody-goody who will undergo the transformation Ethan Hawke resists, to aid him in a robbery to supply the upfront payment to Masters they cannot afford.
As an actor Petersen often drifts toward playing unlikeable people and, thus, is squarely in his wheelhouse as Chance. This is one of the most unlikeable protagonists you will encounter, which I imagine did (will) elicit bone dry complaints of “There’s no one to empathize with!” Never mind that, because he’s fascinating to watch as he digs a deeper hole for himself, desperate but (way too) determined. An epic car chase, which Friedkin shoots, as he does the whole film, in a classical, concise, coherent manner, is the sort that goes through everyday traffic on the L.A. freeway, ramming into innocent vehicles right and left. And this character? This character would put the lives of innocent drivers at risk, damn the torpedoes, no questions asked.
The most intriguing relationship in the film is between Chance and Ruth Lanier (Darlanne Fluegel), a parolee and an informant with whom he’s having a relationship. Well, relationship is pushing it. They have sex and the morning after when she wonders aloud what might happen if she stopped giving him information, he replies, plainly, “I’d have your parole revoked.” Woooooooooah. That sound you hear? That’s the sound of the ice floes surrounding William Petersen’s cold, cold heart.
And that’s the entire film, really, a descent into a gaudy but morally desolate L.A. where even the good guys turn out to be bad guys.
One glorious passage of dialogue speaks straight to the movie’s intent. Referring to something she recently read, Ruth dreamily offers: “It talked about how the eyes are the stars of God. I think that’s true. Don’t you?” Chance’s monotone reply doesn’t even come with a facial expression.
“No," he says. "I don’t.”