MGM // 1985 // 116 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // February 15th, 2010
A federal agent is dead. A killer is loose. And the City of Angels is about to explode.
"I thought To Live and Die in L.A. was, in all, about a counterfeit world. Counterfeit emotions. Counterfeit money. Counterfeit super-structure of the Secret Service. Everyone in the film has a kind of counterfeit motive." -- William Friedkin
Richard Chance (William Petersen, Manhunter) is a U.S. Secret Service officer with a taste for danger and risk-taking. When his partner is murdered by counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe, Platoon) just days before his retirement, Chance vows to take Masters down at any cost. Chance and his new partner John Vukovich (John Pankow, Mad About You) go undercover to set up a deal with Masters, but their sting hits a snag when the Treasury Department won't front the money Masters demands as down payment for producing millions in phony twenties. Based on a tipoff by Ruth (Darlanne Fluegel, Lock Up), an informant Chance is sleeping with, he and Vukovich rob $50,000 from a crook who turns out to be an undercover FBI agent. Vukovich is terrified that their crime will be discovered, but Chance presses on, determined to bag Masters on behalf of his dead partner.
One-time documentarian William Friedkin began his narrative feature film career with the one-two punch of The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973). In each film, he applied documentary aesthetics in ways that reinvented their respective genres, and led to big box office bucks and heaps of accolades during awards season (The French Connection cleaned up at the Oscars, winning nearly all of the major category awards, while The Exorcist was nominated for ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director). After this massive back-to-back success, Friedkin's career hit the skids a bit with Sorcerer (a Wages of Fear remake that was buried by Star Wars' massive success), forgettable crime-farce The Brink's Job, controversial cop film Cruising, and lame Chevy Chase vehicle Deal of the Century. With To Live and Die in L.A., Friedkin attempted to return to form and deliver the box office juju by making a movie that combines the uncompromising grit of The French Connection with the detached cool of Miami Vice, the most popular show on television at that time. The result is the one of the grimmest but most badass buddy cop movies of the '80s. It didn't exactly burn down the box office, but it managed respectable ticket sales and became something of a cult classic the minute it made its way to VHS.
In terms of '80s buddy cop flick bona fides, To Live and Die in L.A. has it all, but turned so relentlessly dark and vicious that it makes the likes of Tango & Cash, Beverly Hills Cop, and 48 Hours look like slapstick. Richard Chance is the standard loose cannon cop with a pathological hunger for danger that makes him one part Popeye Doyle, one part Martin Riggs (though To Live and Die in L.A. was made two years before Lethal Weapon). Chance moves from having an older, wiser partner (who is written so close to type that he actually says the line, "I'm getting too old for this shit") to a greenhorn who must be schooled in the ways of the street. Rick Masters is a slick and stylish villain, memorably charismatic yet enough of a dead-eyed sociopath that the audience just wants to see him die violently. Friedkin unapologetically plays with genre stereotypes, but puts his own spin on them -- a spin that emphasizes realism, violence, and nihilism. Highlights of the movie include a long, masterfully shot set piece of Masters printing phony money that is so realistic that members of the production were afraid they might be busted by the feds during the shoot (Friedkin brought in a former counterfeiter to consult on the sequence so that it would be as accurate as possible). An L.A. freeway car chase in which Chance and Vukovich drive against the flow of traffic rivals the chase in The French Connection for sheer visceral thrills. And the movie's ending -- oh, have mercy, the ending. Without giving anything away, Friedkin's finale is one for the ages, perhaps the bleakest and most shocking ending in the entire history of cop movies.
The 1080p/AVC transfer on this Blu-ray betrays the film's age, but still offers a noticeable upgrade in detail and color reproduction over the Special Edition DVD. Grain can be coarse in dark sequences but is mostly tight and controlled. The image does display some haloing from edge enhancement. It's minor but still unfortunate.
Audio has been upgraded from the DVD's Dolby Digital 4.0 surround to a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio track in full 5.1 surround. The Blu-ray's track is considerably brighter but exhibits the same poor mix as the DVD's track. Relegated to the front sound stage, dialogue is flat and sometimes tinny, while the score by '80s pop band Wang Chung and many of the sound effects blast from both the front and rear speakers. The result is a mix that is at turns too quiet and too loud.
The only supplement on the Blu-ray is a theatrical trailer presented in high definiton, but Fox has seen fit to slip a copy of MGM's 2004 Special Edition DVD inside the keepcase. It contains an SD presentation of the movie as well as a smallish batch of decent extras.
William Friedkin delivers an excellent audio commentary in which he discusses all aspects of making the film, relays interesting anecdotes, and analyzes what you're watching onscreen. His delivery is casual and friendly, and he never repeats himself or allows the track to bog down in silence.
Counterfeit World: The Making of To Live and Die in L.A. (29:51) is a fine retrospective documentary that goes well beyond the slick and empty style of electronic press kits. Friedkin, Petersen, Dafoe, Pankow, and others recall the making of the film, providing interesting anecdotes about Friedkin's drive toward realism as well as his off-the-cuff shooting style.
An alternate ending and a deleted scene (involving Vukovich and his estranged wife) can be viewed individually or as part of two featurettes that provide background on each sequence. The more interesting of the two scenes is the alternate ending, which would have undone Friedkin's incredibly ballsy finale. Thankfully, though he agreed to the studio's requests to shoot the alternate ending, he stuck to his guns when assembling the final film.
A stills gallery contains a hefty collection of 60 publicity and production photographs. The disc also offers teaser and theatrical trailers for the movie.
To Live and Die in L.A.'s action/crime storyline is timeless, as is Friedkin's hard-edged approach to telling the story. The movie's fashion and music, however, are not. High-waisted, stone-washed jeans, cowboy boots, mullets, and a synthesizer-heavy soundtrack date the movie big time. It feels much more like a product of its time than The French Connection, which in many ways feels more contemporary despite its '70s trappings. I suppose that's the price that Friedkin pays for aping Miami Vice's fashion-conscious cool.
Made during a decade littered with cop movies both good and bad, To Live and Die in L.A. is a unique entry in the genre -- gritty, action-packed, and uncompromising. This Blu-ray isn't everything it could be, but it offers enough of a video improvement over the old DVD to be upgrade worthy for fans of the film.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 116 Minutes
Release Year: 1985
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Image Gallery
* DVD Copy