MGM // 1985 // 116 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // January 5th, 2004
If you live by the sword, you'll die by the sword.
Some things go together like "shama-lama-ding-dong," and in movies the combination can be almost anything. Luke, Leia, and a Death Star. Hobbits, magical rings, and dead authors. In director William Friedkin's To Live and Die in L.A., it's money laundering, sun dried California, and Wang Chung. What could possibly be better than that? Featuring one of the most startling car chases in all of cinema, To Live and Die in L.A. has languished in video bins for far too long. The good folks over at MGM have finally resurrected this seminal 1980s classic on DVD in a new Special Edition that will get your blood boiling and your pedal to the metal!
The mean streets of Los Angeles can eat a guy up if he's not careful. Take it from Richard Chance (William L. Petersen, TV's CSI), a danger seeking L.A. Secret Service agent hot on the trail of the murderous counterfeiter, Eric Masters (Willem Dafoe, Spider-Man), Masters killed his partner and has eluded capture for years, always staying just one step ahead of the law. Chance's new partner is John Vukovich (John Pankow, TV's Mad About You), a good cop who gets caught up in Chance's often vicious quest for vengeance. When Chance learns of a another crook coming into town with $50,000 in a briefcase, he sets up a rendezvous to kidnap the criminal and steal the money for use in an advancement to buy bogus bills off Masters and catch him in the act. When the scenario gets botched up, Chance and John find themselves way in over their heads. With danger at every turn and a full head of steam always at the ready, Chance finds himself treading a dangerous line between being a good cop and a man on the edge.
William Friedkin is a director that I admire the more I see his films. I enjoyed the chilling tension in The Exorcist and was riveted by Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio Del Toro's manhunt in The Hunted. To Live and Die in L.A. is yet another example of the director's skillful hand with action movies and complex characters.
The cool thing about To Live and Die in L.A. is that it's not your standard cop action movie. While there are plenty of scenes involving cars, guns, and bodies being blown away, Friedkin gives the film a much more ambiguous tone. The character of Richard Chance is not your typical movie hero -- he's a man living on the brink of death with a dark, malevolent streak. The fact that he's willing to break the law to bring Masters (played chillingly by Dafoe) into custody tells a lot about his moral convictions. This unusual twist makes for a deeper, far more penetrating story than most movies of this nature. Equally as exciting are the stunts, car chases, and shoot outs Friedkin has staged -- Chance's pursuit through the Los Angeles back roads easily goes down as one of the most exciting sequences in the last 25 years.
The actors all do a good to great job with their roles. William Petersen makes a very good hero who treads various sides of the law. One minute you like him, the next you wonder how close he's soaring to the scum he's chasing. A young Willem Dafoe makes for a great nemesis, all toothy grin and slick charm. Dafoe has quickly established himself as one of cinema's best slime balls, an honor I'm sure he's proud of. Also of note is a very young John Turturro who plays with both men's trust and emotions, Dean Stockwell as a sleazy lawyer, John Pankow as Chance's fresh, naïve new partner (Pankow would later go on to irritate me as Ira in the hit show Mad About You, but that's another story for another time).
If there are any real problems with To Live and Die in L.A., it's the fact that the movie feels like a time capsule from 1985, punctuated by a very dated soundtrack by Wang Chung, who gets the award for "Most Phallic Sounding Rock Band Name." In the years since To Live and Die in L.A.'s release, we've seen dozens upon dozens of good cop/bad cop movies -- in other words, the theme has gotten stale.
Quibbles. Complaints aside, I more than enjoyed this movie. It's got great cinematography by Robby Muller (Repo Man, The Believers), excellent performances by the entire cast, and an ending that's as shocking as it is true to the tone of the movie. Highly recommended to anyone who enjoys a good car chase.
To Live and Die in L.A. is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Fans of this film will be most pleased with the way this transfer turned out. Though there are some imperfections in the image (including a slight amount of grain and edge enhancement), overall it's a very attractive picture. The colors and black levels are all solidly rendered without any bleeding. Shadow detail is also excellent with no digital artifacting penetrating the image. A very nice transfer all around.
The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround in English. I am pleasantly surprised with how good this track ended up. Much of it is front heavy, but MGM has added a few well-placed directional effects and surround sounds in the mix, especially when the cars race through the streets and aqueducts. All aspects of the mix are free of any major hiss or distortion. While this isn't the most bombastic mix ever created, fans of the film will no doubt be happy with the end product. Also included on this disc are English, French, and Spanish subtitles, as well as a Dolby 2.0 Stereo Surround track in French and a Dolby Mono soundtrack in Spanish.
MGM knows what the fans want and gives it to them with this newly minted "Special Edition" of To Live and Die in L.A.. Starting off the disc is a commentary by director William Friedkin. Far from being a fluffy commentator, Friedkin is a chatty, knowledgeable filmmaker who covers all aspects of the film, including the technical effects, the story, the themes, and what it was like working with the cast. Viewers will learn a lot through this track -- it's well worth the time of any fan.
Next up is a half-hour long retrospective documentary titled "Counterfeit World" that includes interviews with Friedkin, Willem Dafoe, William L. Petersen, John Pankow, Darlanne Fluegel, co-producer Bud Smith, and others. This doc makes for a very nice bookend to Friedkin's commentary track. A lot of ground is covered, including some discussion about how the studio reps were not happy with the film's ending (a tacked on "happy" ending was scrapped). This is a fine little feature that is never boring and always to the point.
Two featurettes on the deleted scenes and the alternate ending (which is laughable and would have been a cop out) include Friedkin discussing why various scenes were cut, and what he thinks of the alternate ending (it's crap is his summation) that he was forced to shoot by the studio. All of these are presented in 1.85:1 non-anamorphic widescreen and are available without Friedkin's comments.
Finally there is a still gallery of images from the film, a theatrical and teaser trailer for the film, and trailers for other MGM releases.
I was happily surprised at how good To Live and Die in L.A.. For whatever the reason I thought it would be a cheesy '80s cop film without much substance. I was wrong. Fans of the film will go ballistic for this new DVD edition of the film -- the video and audio presentations are very good and the supplements informative.
To Live and Die in L.A. is an excellent cops and robbers film. Acquitted!
Review content copyright © 2004 Patrick Naugle; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Golden Gavel 2003 Nominee
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 116 Minutes
Release Year: 1985
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary Track by Director William Friedkin
* "Counterfeit World" Documentary
* Still Galleries
* Deleted Scenes Featurette
* Alternate Ending Featurette
* Theatrical Trailer
* Teaser Trailer
* Bonus Trailers