An early trip to the cinema to beat the certificate and see a proper 18 certificate film, William Friedkin’s hot-as-asphalt thriller set me back a cool 50 pence back in 1985. The draw was that this came from the director of The French Connection, and had a car chase; that was more than enough to send me to a matinee performance that set a high bar for my expectations of big-screen entertainment. Straight out of the gate, this is no ordinary cop-show; writer Gerald Petievich was a former US Secret Service agent, and it shows. We looking at a war on crime where men and women are cannon fodder on both sides., and everyone has a chance to live and die in L.A.
So we start in Century City, and a presidential motorcade on its way to a hotel. Agents Jimmy Hart (Michael Greene) and Richard Chance (William Petersen) manage to foil a suicide bomber after a rooftop stand-off, but know that they’re ‘getting too old for this sh*t.’ Hart is killed investigating a counterfeit operation, so Chance pairs up with newbie John Vukovich (John Pankow) to take down arty criminal Masters (Willem Dafoe). Initially small-time crook Carl Cody (John Turturro) looks like a way in for the cops, but when Cody escapes from Chance, the cops mistakenly hope to work an undercover sting that goes south. When a tip-off leads to the dynamic duo picking up a diamond merchant at LA’s Union Station, things go south as the cops find the entire city shooting at them, and their best escape is the wrong way up an eight-lane motorway at rush hour…
Most car-chase fans put this at near the top of their best-ever lists, and they’re right. There’s not a bad shot it in, but it also opens up the story of the film in an alarming way. The cops have no way of knowing that the man they’ve lifted is an undercover agent, and their deepening incredulity as agent after agent starts firing on them makes for a surreal, exciting scene. But Friedkin gets all the details right, from the destructive/constructive bent of Dafoe’s sleazy art-dealer to the elaborate counterfeit process he organises. Petersen does well with the nihilistic nature of his anything–goes character (”I’m a bag-man and I don’t give a sh*t about how I do it.’), while Pankow’s scenes with Dean Stockwell as a crooked lawyer are choice. That hard-bitten, sweary dialogue (”If you want bread, **** a baker’ or “I promise not to **** in your *****’) probably kept this one off the TV and away from the Miami Vice/ CSI crowd, but there’s no point in complaining; this is one tough movie from soup to nuts.
A gripping foot chase through LA airport, a wrap-around fantastic percussive soundtrack by Wang Chung, Robert Downey Sr; there’s all kinds of attractions here, but the main meal needs no garnish. Police movies are ten a penny; To Live And Die in L.A. has the ground-rush of Michael Mann at his best, but also taps into the neo-noir energy of LA in a way that few films have. A blast of hard-bitten downbeat action, Friedkin’s film lives hard and dies harder in a way few movies do.