FOOTAGE FETISHES: “TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A.”

It’s a Friedkin Shame

I never ceased to be amazed by the number of quality movies out there that have never been released on DVD and worse, are now out of print on videotape. The sentiment goes double for films made by acknowledged masters of their craft. Martin Scorsese’s name isn’t enough (so far) to get “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” or “After Hours” a DVD release, same for Peter Bogdanovich’s “Paper Moon.” Star power helps, which is why otherwise overlooked movies like Coppola’s “The Terror” (starring Jack Nicholson) can get released. Of course, eventually just about everything filmed in the last forty years will make it, legally or not, to DVD (or to whatever new format they convince us cineaste suckers to blow our money on).

Unfortunately, that doesn’t take away the pain of knowing any Joe Blow can get crisp digital copies of “The Giant Spider Invasion” and fucking “Highlander II,” while I’m stuck with my beat-up VHS copy William Friedkin’s great “To Live and Die in L.A.”

Friedkin is best known as the director of The Exorcist and “The French Connection.” He would probably rather not be remembered for “Deal of the Century” (we’ll call “Jade” a draw). Considering the status he garnered in Hollywood from those two movies alone, it’s a little surprising “To Live and Die in L.A.” was never given the DVD treatment. This is even more apparent when you look at some of the films in his catalog that have: 1967’s “Good Times,” starring powerhouse talents Sonny and Cher, and the criminally unheard of 1977 Roy Scheider vehicle “Sorcerer.”

Then again, if it weren’t for my VHS copy, I’d never be able to enjoy the classic 1985 commercial for Nestlé Alpine White chocolate (“Sweet dreams you can’t resist, N-E-S-T-L-E-S”), but I digress.

William L. Petersen (Manhunter, TV’s “C.S.I.”) plays Secret Service agent Richard Chance, who at first blush appears to be your stereotypical hot dog cop. He and his partner, Jim Hart (Michael Greene) are after counterfeiting mastermind Rick Masters, played by Willem Dafoe (“Platoon,” Spider-Man). After Hart meets his untimely demise (see below), Chance is assigned a new partner, John Vukovich, played by John Pankow (uh…”Mad About You”). It is the cat-and-mouse game between Chance and Masters that fuels the action and leads the movie to its startling conclusion.

Both Pankow and Greene are serviceable, but it is John Turturro, emoting his sleazy heart out as Masters’ mule Carl Cody, who really shines in the supporting cast. Cody is a wonderfully self-absorbed character, and Turturro is perfect in the role.

“Ever do any BASE jumping?”

This is a film ahead of it’s time in an unusual number of ways. Friedkin establishes this in the first scene, where Chance and Hart foil an assassination attempt on President Reagan by, you guessed it, a Muslim extremist. Seeing a wild-eyed Arab terrorist with dynamite strapped to his chest brought back fond memories of a time when that kind of character was actually far-fetched.

But wait, there’s more. Immediately after the bomber plunges to his death (somehow detonating eight sticks of dynamite and managing not to kill two men standing less than twenty feet away), Hart sagely asserts to his partner that he’s “getting too old for this shit.” Now, I don’t have a canonical reference for when that line was first used in cinema, but Danny Glover wouldn’t famously utter it in “Lethal Weapon” for two more years. Even better, Chance and Hart have been tracking Rick Masters for years, and when Hart unwisely follows a lead alone to an old warehouse that Masters is using, he is tragically gunned down. The kicker? Hart was three days from retirement! Sure seems like that happens a lot.

Not like you didn’t start mentally engraving his headstone as soon as it came up.

“To Live and Die in L.A.” also gives us one of our first looks at Willem Dafoe. Dafoe, as artist/counterfeiter Rick Masters, is shockingly young. Not even thirty when this was filmed, he gives the best performance of his young career (though he’d top it less than a year later as Sgt. Elias in “Platoon”). And please, spare me the “Streets of Fire” argument. The only reason anybody watched that dog was to see Diane Lane tied to a bed.

Chance also BASE (Building, Antenna, Span, Earth) jumps. These days you can’t go two minutes without seeing some asinine soft drink commercial depicting adolescent chuckleheads plummeting off a mountain, but back in 1985 the concept was understandably alien. In those days, only people possessed of incredible daring and/or tremendous stupidity attempted such things. We realize, watching Chance plummet off a bridge, that he’s a maverick and a risk-taker. In short, “Chance” likes to take chances. Delicious.

It would’ve been easy to portray Chance as your typical Maverick Cop Who Plays by His Own Set of Rules – he’s apparently the only Secret Service agent in Los Angeles allowed to come to work in jeans, a leather jacket, and cowboy boots – except he’s a bit beyond that; Chance is also a real asshole. He’s sleeping with his informant, Debra (a superfluous Bianca Torres), whose parole he’d nonchalantly revoke if she ever stopped giving him tips. He at turns manipulates and abuses Vukovich, his new partner, threatening him and then petulantly storming out when he refuses to pull out all the stops against the counterfeiter. One could argue his vendetta against Masters justifies his single-minded determination and cold demeanor. One would be wrong.

More in part two of FOOTAGE FETISHES: “TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A.”>>>




Posted on October 24, 2002 in Features by

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