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To Live and Die In LA: Hell on Earth


William Friedkin has been a director I have been meaning to cover on my site for awhile now. Whilst I had another review in mind for my next review, a few recent watches have pulled me back in the direction of his work. Which to say the very least was and is as varied as the insults he once slewed in the directions of embittered collaborators, colleagues and critics alike. Friedkin for his many varied strengths and faults was not only one of the most passionate filmmakers we had but also in a way our most approachable. It's one of the reasons we have so many clips of him calling people morons amongst other things that'll peel the paint off your ceiling. But even more than approachable, he was intentional. The choices he made as an artist were foundational in defining generations of genre filmmaking. At certain times in his career Mr. Friedkin was one of film's most prophetic artists, who seemingly had his hand on the pulse of America even if the country in question couldn't always match his stride. Perhaps it was his close relations with members of certain organized crime families, his keen sensibility for sensationalism, dumb luck or some combination of the three but much like the rising sun in the intro of "To Live and Die in LA" he always seemed to rise above the horizon. Even in later works such as Bug can we see him giving the audience a view into the conspiratorial underbelly of the U.S. as it slowly infects and eats away at the lower class. For my money though, however little that might be, "To Live and Die in L.A." is the full realization of America's self destruction. A world where pure greed, lust, excess and duplicity not only come to play but reign supreme with the thin veneer of 1980's exceptionalism glossed over. To Live and Die is in clarity what Friedkin had teased in previous works like "The French Connection" and "Cruising" Hell on Earth. In a land of sunshine it is pure black, evil begetting evil, one sinful act following the other.



In an interview with TCM's Ben Mankiewicz recorded a few years ago during the pandemic William Friedkin states that amongst other things what attracted him to adapting the Gerald Petievich of the same name was that the idea that a Secret Service Agent could be "one day chasing a guy down the street for a counterfeit twenty dollar bill and the next day they're protecting the President of the United States...." the idea of duality is one that is prevalent through much of Friedkin's works, most notably in the controversial but masterful thriller "Cruising". However I think what distinguishes this over the former is the idea that everyone in this movie is either already living a double life or destined to soon have one as the corrupting force of 1980's Los Angeles beckons like a siren looking for yet another lost soul. We see this spirit reflected in the film's villain Rick Masters, accomplished artist by day counterfeiter by night, which even in the simplest of terms doesn't begin to describe him or his villainy. Arson, cold blooded killer, amateur pornographer and sexually fluid playboy who just so happens to be in a somewhat open relationship with a kitschy kabuki dancer are things that only begin to scratch the surface of the gluttony Masters' character embodies. He represents every bit of the shallow 80's excess and consumerist culture. Much like the corporate suits who spent the decade "trimming the fat" Masters is a man who expects loyalty from his associates yet is willing to cut ties and kill them at a moments notice in order to protect himself. In spite of his accomplishments as an artist he's an insecure and even impotent man who is only aroused by the thrill of his crimes and the narcissistic ritual of watching himself make love, eat your hear out "American Psycho". In theory Masters is a pathetic villain yet the brilliant casting of Willem Dafoe brings the whole package together and turns the character into someone who is in my opinion one of cinema's most devilish advisories. Someone who even in the face of constantly being beat up over the course of the film retains his threatening aura. Wherever Masters is death and chaos are soon to follow and if he can't get to you he's more than willing to outsource the deed. But what of our heroes? Well simply put there are none. "To Live and Die in L.A." is a world ruled by the philosophy of don't assume malice for what could easily be explained by incompetence but also don't rule out malice. The reluctant partners of Secret Service Agents Chance and Vukovich are the symptoms of what appears in the film as a barely functional justice system which is mostly ruled bureaucracy, one where their superiors are more irritated by the fact that they didn't go through the proper channels of paper work than they are willing to stop them in performing their transgressions. The web of sleaze wraps its way around everyone in this film and while it often tries to paint its protagonists as regular Joes who like to hang out at neighborhood dives commiserating amongst the local working class, the reality is they are quite possibly even more repugnant than the people they put away. While Dalton's cause is seemingly one with noble motivations, avenging the death of his late partner and partner friend, his actions go beyond the pale of repugnant. In his quest for revenge Dalton abuses the coercive sexual relationship he has with his informant turned girlfriend, constantly rebukes both the concerns of both her and Vukovich as well as getting the latter caught deep into what can only be describe as a massive conflagration after they unwittingly get a fellow federal agent killed. The chase and shootout that follows said conflagration is amongst the very best in movie history and only serves to further illustrate the film's message of excess and duplicity, as in the following scenes we see Vulkovich who up until this point in the narrative has served as the audience's vessel begins to show his own signs of corruption when he takes steps to sell Chance out. Ironically consulting the same dirty lawyer employed by Masters in doing so. Then there's also the implication of rival intelligence agencies stepping over each others toes and ultimately obstructing the greater justice, which as a child who grew up during the Iraq war is something that still feels very fresh in my mind giving the scandals from that era, much less the countless intelligence scandals from the film's. Indeed in "To Live and Die in L.A." it isn't so much a matter of double, triple or even quadruple crosses but really a long series of fuck ups that lead to the motivated actions of others. Friedkin sets up an air of danger from the film's explosive beginning to the inferno of its finale, however the space in between is filled with Chance and Masters' disastrous flirtations with death and one another. Two perfect foils running parallel in a grand wave of destruction which makes for great entertainment as the walls of consequence gradually begin to close in on both. For me what sticks out most about this film isn't the action sequences or set pieces, baroque as they may be, but the matter of fact frankness it displays. This is the City of Angels according to Freidkin is one giant cesspool of decadent destruction wallowing in the grief it creates. So it should serve then as no surprise that the death of Chance, though teased from the film's very beginning is not some drawn out cinematic sequence but a literal bang bang moment in a stuffy gym locker room that ends with his head getting blown off. Similarly Masters' death is equally pathetic in its nature and can best be described as self immolation by way of cop. But the twist of the film is not necessarily how Chance and Masters die but rather seeing the aftermath of the fact, with Vukovich fully crossing over from the boyish ways that made him easily identifiable within the eyes of the audience to the full blown pariah his partner was. We see him take on everything of Chance's personality from his manner of dress to his one sided affair with his informant. This transformation might be a little too on the nose for some but it works for me just fine and as I've alluded to is sort of a rephrasing of an idea present in "Cruising". The idea of how corruption changes a person and how easy it is to take the traits of those you seek to punish and avenge when the reigns aren't properly pulled in. "To Live and Die in L.A." like "Cruising has it flaws as well mind you, for starters the dubbing is nearly giallo levels of bad in some sections, but overall is a much better cast film and doesn't suffer from the level of disjointedness in its narrative and theming. The message here is simple. "This is L.A., this is how corrupt the system is, enjoy the decadence while it lasts it's all built on a house of cards anyway."



"To Live and Die in L.A." feels like it's the forgotten masterpiece in the career of William Friedkin, while it's stylistically very much of its era it still has a contemporary feeling in its absurdity. In my opinion it's one of the more self aware films of its era, not just as an action film. There's a sincerity in its approach even if its approach is anything but sincere, as a voyeuristic view into the world of 1980's Los Angles according to the cinematic eye of William Friedkin I think there's few better than it. You can even see where others took from it with lines like "he had 2 more days" and "I'm getting too old for this shit" being cliches parodied to this day. Does 'To Live and Die' stand above the shoulders of works like "The French Connection", "The Exorcist" and "Sorcerer"? No. But it does deserve to be in the same conversation as them, just as it deserves to be listed among the best crime movies of its era. Michael Mann's "Thief" forever changed the crime genre, "To Live and Die in L.A." took the conversation even further and I don't think we end up with the generation of filmmakers that followed without them. It's hard to imagine a world where the likes of David Fincher and Nicolas Winding Refen are creating their stylish thrillers if something like "To Live and Die in L.A." doesn't come first. Though for whatever contemporary examples I can procure, there is nary a few that come close to the percussive and at times almost concussing soundtrack this film has to offer. It is one of few examples in film where I can describe a film's score as being assaulting and it being a positive. Whang Chung as random a choice as they were even in retrospect bring this film alive. It's honestly worth a watch just for that alone. Come for the soundtrack, stay for orange haze filtered urban chaos filled inferno. If you are looking to experience the rock concert action crime thriller that is "To Live and Die in L.A." for yourself it isn't currently streaming anywhere but a 4k physical edition is available to purchase, though I'm sure you can find it online if you know where to look.

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