Jul 16, 2014
After the commercial and critical failure of his absurdly underrated $22 million South American odyssey Sorcerer (1977)—a keenly kaleidoscopic remake of the classic black-and-white French-Italian thriller The Wages of Fear (1953) aka Le salaire de la peur directed Henri-Georges Clouzot—as well as his mostly forgettable crime-comedy The Brink's Job (1978) and his misunderstood sadomasochistic sodomite slasher flick Cruising (1980) starring Al Pacino in lurid leather-fag apparel, Chicago-bred auteur William Friedkin (The Exorcist, Killer Joe) fell out of favor in Hollywood and had a rather hard time obtaining film projects to work on, but he still managed to continue to direct some of the best and most subversive films to come out of Tinseltown, even if not many people took notice, with his obscenely stylish action-crime-thriller To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) being a great example of one of the director’s most neglected works. A sort of The French Connection (1971) for the 1980s, albeit set on the west as opposed to east coast and minus the swarthy bearded frogs and junky negroes, the film is based on the 1984 novel of the same name written by former United States Secret Service Special Agent turned Hollywood screenwriter Gerald Petievich (The Sentinel, Boiling Point) and is about a morally dubious adrenalin junky Secret Agent who goes to great lengths to bust a murderous counterfeiter who moonlights as a degenerate artist and who likes to burn his own neo-expressionist Schoenberg-esque paintings. Opting to hire Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller after being impressed with his work on Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984) and intentionally filming it around a number of remote post-industrial wastelands in Los Angeles, Friedkin managed to assemble a totally singular and nastily nihilistic synthesizer-driven (anti)tribute to Reaganism that quite shockingly gives artfulness and even perverse poetry to the mostly aesthetically worthless action-crime-thriller subgenre. Featuring a most fitting, if not sometimes cheesy, soundtrack by new wave group Wang Chung, obscenely outmoded neon-colored titles and a quasi-new romanticist fashion sense, To Live and Die in L.A. is one of those oh-so rare films that gives me a little bit of nostalgia for the mostly odious 80s, even though I only first saw it a couple years ago. Starring a number of great actors at a time when they were virtually unknown, including eccentric master actor Willem Dafoe (Antichrist, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?), perennial screen policeman William Petersen (Manhunter, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation), and goofy Guido John Turturro (Do the Right Thing, Barton Fink), the film also features rather striking performances as a hardcore crime flick where the characters truly go beyond good and evil and then some. Indeed, the film was also directed by a quasi-gangster-auteur who hired two real counterfeiters as technical advisors and who even used some of the “funny money” used in the film for his own personal use, or as the director hilariously confessed in his memoir The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir (2013), “When the film came out, there were news stories about people trying to make counterfeit money after seeing the step-by-step process in our film. I took some of the twenties, those printed on both sides of course, put them in my wallet, and spent them, in restaurants, shoe-shine parlors, and elsewhere. The money was that good.” Indeed, Friedkin is no limp-wrist poser and while watching To Live and Die in L.A., it is quite clear that the auteur has a deep fascination with and seemingly identifies with the counterfeiter artist played by Dafoe.
Beginning with a cliché Zionist propaganda scene of sorts where a devout towelhead with a bomb strapped to his body declares, “I’m ready to die […] Death to Israel and American, and all the enemies of Islam! […] I am a martyr. I will bomb myself on you and all the enemies of Islam!,” while being confronted by the film’s Secret Service agent antihero Richard Chance (William Petersen) and his soon-to-be-retired partner Jimmy Hart (Michael Greene), To Live and Die in L.A. certainly seems like another banal crime movie for the first couple minutes or so, but that soon changes after a semi-deranged counterfeiter and dilettante painter named Eric "Rick" Masters (Willem Dafeo) and his brutish bodyguard Jack (played by legendary LAPD officer Jack Hoar) waste a nosey Secret Service agent. Indeed, old man Jimmy makes the major mistake of staking out the counterfeiter’s home on his own and is soon blown away with a shotgun, so his partner Chance vows to exterminate Masters. Unfortunately, Chance, who loves being a man of the law so he can regularly break the law, is assigned a seemingly kosher rookie dork named John Vukovich (John Pankow) as his new partner who turns out to be a patent pansy who likes to do everything by the book. Aside from being a nauseating nerd of the crybaby sort who would have probably made for a much more successful bank manager, Vukovich screws up on his first assignment after falling asleep while monitoring Masters, who ultimately kills his double-crossing attorney Max Waxman (Christopher Allport)—a super scumbag who got rich by representing hippie degenerates in court—but not before mocking his love of primitive negro art and literally blowing his balls off. Chance receives much better help from his quasi-hooker parolee/informant fuckbuddy Ruth Lanier (Darlanne Fluegel), who uses her voluptuous body and criminal connections to learn of the latest big news in the intricate criminal underworld. While Chance loves bungee-jumping and Masters loves painting and religiously exercising, both men are somewhat the same in that they use their lecherous girlfriends to further their careers. While Chance's lady friend is a low-class whore who is more or less a sex slave to the Secret Agent, Masters’ girlfriend Bianca Torres (Debra Feuer) is a scheming bisexual dancer who likes hanging out with Latino girls and deformed people when not making amateur porn flicks with her literally money-making boyfriend.
Unbeknownst to Chance, his partner Vukovich secretly meets with Masters’ psychopathic lawyer Bob Grimes (Dean Stockwell), who will do anything to earn a buck, including working with coldblooded murderers. After Masters pays some incompetent black gangsters to put a hit on his friend Carl Cody (John Turturro) while he is in prison, agent Chance attempts to ply the targeted inmate with a lighter prison sentence. When Chance decides to get Cody out of prison in return for helping him show where Masters keeps his money-making factory, he ultimately looks like a major fool as the prisoner beats him up and manages to getaway. Ultimately, Chance and Vukovich decide to pretend to be big bankers from Palm Springs in a daring attempt to try to coerce Masters into making $1 million dollars worth of fake money for them, but the cunning counterfeiter demands at least $30,000 upfront before he begins the job. Unable to obtain that much cash from his cheap employers at the Secret Service, Chance comes up with the ridiculous and rather illegal plan to rob a Chinese criminal named Thomas Lin (Michael Chong) after his informant girlfriend Ruth gives him a lead that the Chinaman will be at a train station carrying $50,000 to purchase stolen jewelry, but when he and Vukovich kidnap the chink con, they discover he only has old phonebooks in his suitcase. On top of that, Lin, who is ultimately killed during a shootout, is an informant for the FBI, so Chance and Vokovich get in an insane car chase that almost leaves them both dead. After a police briefing about the death of informant Lin, whiny weakling Vukovich attempts to convince Chance that they should turn themselves in, but of course his partner is no anxiety-ridden wimp who plays by the rules and respectfully refuses. Of course, the two agents eventually bring Masters his money, through the counterfeiter seems suspicious of the cops. When Chance and Vukovich attempt to arrest Masters upon finally receiving the phony money, a struggle breaks out that leaves two of the men dead. Indeed, in a nasty little twist, Chance, like his deceased partner Jimmy, is annihilated after taking a close-range shotgun blow to the head, with Masters’ scummy muscle Jack going down as well. After melodramatically crying to Chance’s bloody corpse, “you can’t do this to me!,” as if his girlfriend had just broke up with him, Vukovich chases down Masters and discovers that the counterfeiter has set fire to his currency-creating warehouse. Before a somewhat anti-climatic fight breaks out that ultimately leaves the counterfeiter in mere ashes after accidentally setting himself on fire, Masters reveals to Vukovich that lawyer Grimes has been working for him all along. In the end, Masters’ high dollar whore girlfriend Bianca inherits her late boy toy’s estate and she celebrates by taking her mestizo girlfriend Serena (Jane Leeves) on a joy ride in her belated beau's sports car. As for Vukovich, he inherits his deceased partner Chance’s hot whore informant girlfriend Ruth. Indeed, by the conclusion of the film, Vukovich has finally developed some testicular fortitude, but he has also degenerated into a quasi-psychopathic lunatic lawman who gets a natural high busting bad guys.
Unquestionably, one must give credit to director William Friedkin for killing off the charismatic antihero of To Live and Die in L.A. during an all-too-brief, if not not rather visceral and explosive, fight sequence. Apparently, the film was originally suppose to conclude with prick Vukovich being slaughtered instead, which I would not have minded seeing as the character is exceedingly repugnant in both appearance and character, as a sort of cop Jerry Seinfeld, albeit minus the insufferable Hebraic humor. Of course, Friedkin's film is a rare crime-thriller that breaks all the rules, as a work that is innately contra to the autistic action flicks of Michael Bay. In my humble opinion, To Live and Die in L.A. not only tops The French Connection in terms of grittiness and moral dubiousness, but is also an overall superior film, as an audacious and aesthetically aggressive anti-buddy cop flick that more or less lets the viewer know that America is a land of outlaws where cops and robbers are one and the same and where a statuesque woman will jump on any psychotic dickhead's swinging dick, so long as he feeds her voracious thirst for cash, be it counterfeit or otherwise. While I find most cinematic chase scenes to be about as entertaining as McDonalds commercials, To Live and Die in L.A. features one such scenario that borderlines on poetry of the post-industrial sort. As to the sort of formula that makes for such a great chase scene, Friedkin wrote in his memoir, “”The chase” is the purest form of cinema, something that can’t be done in any other medium, not in literature nor on a stage nor on a painter’s canvas. A chase must appear spontaneous and out of control, but it must be meticulously choreographed, if only for safety considerations.”
Featuring a sexually ambiguous deformed midget cripple who delights in ‘Entartete Kunst,’ quirky insults to archaic negro art (in one scene, Dafoe sardonically remarks regarding a small African statue that his attorney has just hit him in the head with, “18th-century Cameroon. Yes, your taste is in your ass”), a lipstick lesbian femme fatale that anticipates the lethally lecherous anti-heroine of Basic Instinct (1992), Willem Dafoe during his pre-fame days as a deranged ‘tortured artist’ twink who pretentiously cries while filming homemade porn with his lily-licking lady friend, and William ‘CSI’ Petersen having his brains blown out, To Live and Die in L.A. demonstrates that crime flicks can actually be quirky and idiosyncratic without compromising adrenalin and unhinged brutality. As to why Friedkin thinks the film was such a commercial failure despite receiving mostly good reviews, the director speculated, “The film opened to low grosses, and MGM did nothing to support it. Ted Turner owned MGM then, and TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. wasn’t his cup of tea; he was busy colorizing classic black-and-white films for his television networks, an unpopular idea that ended badly for him when he announced he was planning to colorize CITIZEN KANE.” A perniciously potent work where redemption seems like something out of a Hollywood fantasy and where art, criminality, and insanity are provocatively linked (notably, one of Dafoe’s character‘s paintings looks strikingly like the 1910 painting Der Rote Blick aka Red Gaze by Arnold Schoenberg, whose art and music where considered the height of aesthetic degeneracy by the Nazis), To Live and Die in L.A. is ultimately a rare and distinguished argument for the artistic merit of action-packed cop flicks.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 12:52 AM
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