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TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A.

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: William L. Petersen, Willem Dafoe, John Pankow, Debra Feuer, John Turturro, Darlene Fluegel, Dean Stockwell
Director: William Friedkin
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Stereo, Spanish Dolby Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: MGM
Features: See Review
Length: 116 Minutes
Release Date: December 2, 2003

"Let me tell you something, amigo. Iím gonna bag Masters and I donít give a s**t how I do it.Ē

Film ***1/2

There were probably three definitive hardcore action thrillers to come out of the 80s. These particular films, each directed by top-notch filmmakers, displayed a profound indulgence for their notoriously violent content as opposed to good taste. The purpose for creating movies like them, I think, was to challenge the perception of an audience, even though that may have been unclear upon their initial release.

The first one, of course, would be De Palma's gangster epic Scarface from 1983, a film which is more popular today than ever before. Secondly, there's 1987's Robocop, where director Paul Verhoven did nothing less than push the envelope of cinematic violence, so much to the point that an R rating may have seemed tame. Lastly, there's director William Friedkin's 1985 gem, To Live and Die in L.A., which has barred a cult status ever since receiving rave reviews nearly twenty years ago.

Actually, Friedkin's film has a lot less action compared to the other two films, but earns it spot in the list due to a few up-close execution scenes. I won't go into specific detail of what is done to numerous people, except to say that these moments in the movie perfectly illustrate what one could get away with back in 1985, and what would not be allowed on screen in 2003. At its core, To Live and Die in L.A. can best be described as a much more hardcore episode of Miami Vice (the music score happens to be by none other than 80s pop sensation Wang Chung), mixed in with a lot more explicit content, of course to make it properly fit for the big screen.

The centerpiece involves a nationwide manhunt for a deadly criminal who heads up a large counterfeit ring. It becomes something of a personal endeavor for Secret Service agent Richard Chance (William L. Petersen) when his about to be retired partner is brutally gunned down while working on a tip leading to master counterfeiter Eric Masters (Willem Dafoe). Chance vows to hunt Masters down at any cost, even if it means bending or breaking any rules.

The setup alone is worthy of this tense thriller, but what makes To Live and Die in L.A. so distinctive is the dark nature of the characters, and I mean every single one of them. As it turns out, it's kind of hard to separate the good guys from the bad. Although Masters is clearly the one to root against, it turns out that Chance, who in most cases would qualify as an easy protagonist, isn't much sympathetic by comparison. Although he's doing what he's doing as part of avenging the death of his partner and friend, Chance happens to be hotheaded and way-over-the-edge in his pursuit, not caring much of how much of a mess he leaves in the process.

The key sequence in To Live and Die in L.A. is a monumental knockout of a car chase, which is just as excitingly shot and choreographed as the classic chase scene in Friedkin's The French Connection. In the aftermath of an undercover bust gone bad, where which Chance is attempting to execute a robbery as a way of coming up with front money to use in the undercover bust of Masters, he and his new rookie partner, Vukovich (John Pankow) find themselves being pursued by multiple cars.

Watching this chase scene, you'll probably be asking yourself, "How in the world did this ever get filmed?" especially when Chance makes a quick decision to cut over to the wrong way section of the freeway, causing all sorts of mayhem to occur in the process. What ranks this among some of the most astounding chase scenes ever shot is that it doesn't feel artificial. All of the cars look as if they're very much in danger of crashing into one another. I have no idea how Friedkin managed to shoot and choreograph this sequence, but I'm just happy everyone made it out of there alive.

Raw, uncompromising and very complex, To Live and Die in L.A. is among the most riveting hard edge thrillers to come from the 80s, as well as director Friedkin, and it features two stellar performances from Petersen, and especially a very young-looking Dafoe.

Video ***

I've seen this movie on video countless times (until now, I never really had any other alternative), so it goes without saying that being able to view this movie in the DVD format was most pleasant. Like most of all Friedkin films, this one is very atmospheric in its setting. The cinematography by Robby Muller is delivered and handled very well by the folks at MGM. The presentation prevails more in daytime shots rather than dark or night shots. The look of the chase sequence is particularly strong.

Audio ***1/2

The remastered 5.1 track certainly provides the best sound quality this film's ever gotten. The music by Wang Chung has never sounded so better, and the range goes wide at individual moments, especially the heart-stopping freeway chase, for which if you've never seen this movie--I envy you on behalf of being able to discover this scene in this format. Unquestionably one of the better sound mixes for any 80s release of this year.

Features ****

First off, I just would like to express to all of you something. Fans of this movie, including myself, have waited an excruciating long time for someone to finally get this one out to DVD. For that, I wish to applaud the good people of MGM for doing it, for it was well worth the wait.

MGM has delivered their Special Edition brilliance for this long awaited release, which features some explosive extras. First off is a commentary by the always-insightful William Friedkin, who always has something intriguing to reflect on behalf of his work. Also included is a new documentary, "Counterfeit World: Making To Live and Die in L.A.", a deleted scene and alternate ending featurette, photo galleries, and a trailer gallery.

Summary:

To Live and Die in L.A. has finally made it to DVD, and it was so ever well worth the long wait. In the format, Friedkin's film has never looked or sounded better, and despite some 80s elements, the film still feels as authentic now as it did then.