June 20, 2007

Movies for Grown-Ups: To Live and Die in LA

(Tired of seemingly all discussion of movies in this country anymore sliding towards poop fests and other kiddie fare? Me too, which is why I decided to dedicate my Netflix account to nothing but "grown-up" movies, and to write reviews here of each one I see. For a master list of all reviews, as well as the next movies on my "queue" list, click here.)

To Live and Die in LA (1985)
Written by Gerald Petievich and William Friedkin, from Petievich's original novel
Directed by William Friedkin

As I think I've shown here by now, I can be a fan sometimes of strictly genre projects, and in fact would even call myself a genre-style lover of science-fiction and the like. And when I say "genre-style lover," you know what I mean; it means I'll often overlook glaring mistakes the creator of that project made, mistakes for which I'd rip other people a new one, as long as they're delivering all the elements that make me love that genre in the first place. Ah, the deep dark secret of genre-loving, finally said out loud! Because this is why genre projects get no respect, either; is that anyone who's critical of one can simply charge that it's the genre-lovers keeping it popular, not because it's actually a well-done project. And thus it is that genre work is forever marginalized when discussed, even though it constitutes the vast, vast majority of all artistic material consumed on this planet; all those romance novels, all those medical shows, all those dark cop films.

And of course there are some artists out there who are just amazing when it comes to genre work, visionaries like JJ Abrams who churn out an endless series of elevated work like Felicity, Alias, and Lost; and then full-time hacks like...oh, Uwe Boll to name just one example, who are working in the "genre ghetto" because they're literally not good enough to work anywhere else. And then there are directors like William Friedkin, who much as someone like Wes Craven (in my mind, anyway) falls in the middle of these two extremes; who puts out films that are sometimes brilliant, sometimes godawful, and sometimes a frustrating but fascinating mix of the two. For example, three of Friedkin's movies in his oeuvre are ones I consider genre classics, and indeed are still watched and enjoyed by many people to this day -- 1971's The French Connection, 1973's The Exorcist, and 1980's Cruising (the latter a crime drama among a gay cruising community, starring Al Pacino, for those who don't know). But then there are the awful ones as well, which came and went from the theatres with barely anyone even remembering them now: the unfortunate Chevy Chase vehicle Deal of the Century, the unfortunate Tommy Lee Jones vehicle Rules of Engagement, the other unfortunate Tommy Lee Jones vehicle The Hunted, and the list just keeps going on.

To Live and Die in LA

So what to make of Friedkin's 1985 "neo-noir" To Live and Die in LA, then? It's considered a lost classic by many, after all, a tight thriller about good cops driven to do bad things, one of several early roles by CSI's William Petersen to cement his reputation as an intense actor, also an early showcase for such great character actors as Willem Dafoe and John Turturro. Then again, there is that Wang Chung soundtrack, which now that I've seen the film myself can see why people hold it up for special derision, versus the other cheesy '80s soundtrack music that usually makes us chuckle instead (say for example, Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis getting it on to "Take My Breath Away" in Top Gun); because in this case, the soundtrack is actually wildly inappropriate to what's actually going on in the movie, with cheesy bland synth-rock not exactly being the correct complement to cops getting shot in the face. It's a fascinating exercise in the perils of genre work; because for every scene that goes right, there's one that goes wrong, one that now makes you lean back and go "Zuh?" even as other sections are unexpectedly suspenseful and great.

To Live and Die in LA

Based on the novel by Gerald Petievich by the same name (and with Petievich being one of the screenwriters as well), To Live and Die is actually not a bad drama at all when it comes strictly to the story: the story of Richard Chance (Petersen), that is, a Secret Service agent in Los Angeles, with a wild streak that lets you know he's a loose cannon (he was bungee-jumping, see, long before suburban mothers at county fairs were, which we know via an elaborately expensive and dated shot of him actually doing so off a bridge), who being that far away from the President has not much better things to do with his time than track down counterfeit money and have crazy NC-17-worthy sex with one of his informants (Debra Feuer, she of the endless '70s and '80s television cameo appearances).

To Live and Die in LA

On the flip side of all this, then, we watch frustrated visual artist turned counterfeiter Rick Masters (Dafoe), as he meticulously creates millions' worth of fake bills out of his old lithographic equipment, shuffling them off to both bad neighborhoods and offshore bankers in exchange for real cash (and whose girlfriend works as an erotic mime performance artist for high-end danceclubs...sheesh, talk about dating yourself). It is Masters who is responsible for Chance's partner's death (two days before retirement, too -- no, I kid you not, thus starting the now well-known cop-movie stereotype), which is what suddenly makes the capturing of Masters to Chance "now personal" (yet another birth of a cop-movie cliche), which is what leads him to taking more and more chances to actually bust the guy. Like, say, making plans for robbing a criminal he finds out will be visiting LA soon with a lot of cash, since the Secret Service won't front the cash needed for an advanced payment to Masters for a job, in his undercover role as a Palm Springs financier looking for a million bucks in "paper" from Masters.

To Live and Die in LA

And thus do things start spiraling out of control, and get simply worse and worse and worse; I won't divulge any of the actual plot, but let's just say that Chance starts dealing with more and more criminal behavior himself as the movie progresses, all in the name of obsessively chasing the guy responsible for his partner's death. And when it comes to all that, that stuff is great; there are lots of twists and surprises when it comes to the story itself, and To Live and Die really does turn out to be a classic noir when all is said and done. But as you can see above, this movie really does traffic in a lot of ideas that have since become cop-movie cliches, which is now to its disadvantage; that we as the weary recipients of all those cop-movie cliches can no longer appreciate the freshness of the material like 1985 audiences did. In fact, I'm sure this is why people call it a "lost classic" -- because it really does establish so many of the stereotypes of that genre, with not a lot of people realizing that this was the movie to do so.

To Live and Die in LA

So, a reserved recommendation from me; definitely a smart and entertaining movie that's ultimately worth your time, but certainly not something to go out of your way to see, and in fact maybe best caught on a lazy random Sunday afternoon on premium cable. That's ultimately what genre work is about, after all, is in providing light entertainment for all the boring Sunday afternoons in one's life; but of course all that froth is also what makes such projects have such a shorter expiration date than more serious or complex creative projects. I can see why the argument is made by others as to the importance of this film; but be warned that the stench of '80s cheese it gives off can sometimes be overpowering.

Out of 10:
Writing: 8.8
Acting: 7.2
Directing: 6.7
Cinematography: 6.6
Overall: 6.8

Random notes:
--If the counterfeiting sequence looks particularly real, by the way, that's because it was; Friedkin was insistent on being as realistic in this movie as possible, including the hiring of real counterfeiters as technical consultants, and the construction of the same setup the real counterfeiters actually used to use. They actually were printing fake money out there in the desert; as Dafoe nervously jokes twenty years later in the DVD extras, every time a helicopter flew overhead during filming, the young actors were sure they were seconds away from being hauled off to jail.

--Of course, this has its bad side, too; Friedkin was so insistent on natural-sounding dialogue that he would often roll cameras while telling the actors it was a rehearsal, then use the footage instead of doing a formal take. Were you wondering, for example, why it takes Petersen so damn long to bust open that briefcase he ends up stealing from the criminal? That's why.

--Gary Sinese was the one who originally tried out for Chance. When he didn't get it, he was the one to recommend Petersen.

Best viewed: On a couch, in your underwear, getting Cheetos all over yourself, while marveling at how built William Petersen used to be in his pre-CSI days.

Next on my queue list: 1988's Dead Ringers, one of the first films to bring both Jeremy Irons and David Cronenberg to the attention of a large audience, and what I'm told is a masterfully creepy movie. I'm looking forward to this one.

Read even more about To Live and Die in LA: Amazon | IMDb | Netflix | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 10:23 AM, June 20, 2007. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |