To Live and Die in LA – 3.5 stars

To Live and Die in L.A. - The Best Movie You Never Saw

During AFI’s recent LA Modern series, we were hoping to see William Friedken’s picture on the big screen, but schedules wouldn’t permit, so we settled for a Netflix rental.  Friedken’s modern crime noir tracks Secret Service agents William Peterson and John Pankow as they hurtle through a maelstrom in an effort to bag master counterfeiter and killer Willem Dafoe. Their zeal seals their doom.

It’s a competent thriller, but there are not insignificant problems.  Peterson’s adrenaline junkie character is too one-dimensional, and the screenplay (written by a former Secret Service agent and Friedken) can be awkward in its reliance on hyper machismo, tough guy patter (“you want bread?  Fuck a baker!”) or even hackneyed (“I’m getting too old for this shit”). And if you were a Wang Chung fan, this is your movie, but the synthesized 80s score was hit-or-miss at the time and doesn’t travel so well 30 years later.

But the second half of the movie overcomes a lot of the weaknesses of the first, as Peterson and Pankow are revealed to be screw-ups in the ultimate clusterfuck. As they dig deeper, Pankow enlists the aid of Dafoe’s own lawyer, a confident but slightly oily Dean Stockwell, and it is a revelation to see the portrayal of a cop who is probably took weak for the job. Meanwhile, Dafoe proves less efficient than his stylish demeanor suggests and his errors eventually become too much to bear. Dispensing with super cops and criminal masterminds results in a much more satisfying picture.

Friedken also includes a boffo car chase after a heist gone bad in homage to his own The French Connection, and all of his action scenes are non-stylized and immediate (my son observed that the flick has to hold the record for guys shot in the face at 3). Notably, and in keeping with its inclusion in the AFI series, the locations are almost exclusively sun-bleached and bleak industrial LA, a rarity.


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