Tuesday, September 7, 2010

"To Live and Die in LA" (1985)

Starring William Petersen, Willem Dafoe and John Pankow
Written by William Friedkin and Gerald Petievich
Directed by William Friedkin

It's interesting how a film from 1985 can feel more like a "Miami Vice" movie than the "Miami Vice" movie.  William Friedkin co-writes and directs this thriller starring William Petersen, later of "CSI" fame as hot shot Secret Service Agent Richard Chance on the trail of master counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe).  Chance's partner, Jimmy Hart, goes to follow up a lead on Masters and ends up dead two days before retirement.  Chance, of course, can't let this happen.  Paired with a new partner, John Vukovich (John Pankow), Chance decides to get Masters - whatever it takes.

As Chance and Vukovich get closer to Masters, their grip on him slips further and further away.  Growing desperate, they begin to take bigger and bigger risks to get him, including hatching a plan to rip off $50,000 from other criminals in order to catch Masters in a sting.  But things get more dangerous, and far more complicated, bringing them squarely on the wrong side of the law.

"To Live and Die in LA" is a pretty interesting thriller, set squarely in the middle of the 80s and yet also feeling pretty modern save for a few key things.  In terms of its editing and cinematography, it actually feels quite fresh.  It's not overloaded with crappy neon-colored lighting or excessive soft-focus.  Chases and fights are quick, frantic and harsh.  Where the film feels dated falls squarely on the characters' clothing which is undoubtedly 80s (though subdued, not marked with the excesses of the decade) and the film's score by Wang Chung which is all drum machines and 'bow-bow-twang' synthesizers. 

While the 2006 "Miami Vice" film starring Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell ended up a lengthy bore, "To Live and Die in LA" feels like what that movie should have been.  Chance and Vukovich navigate through crime in LA, going undercover and dealing with lowlifes and slick criminals all set to music that really moves.  They might not be Crockett and Tubbs, but they're certainly closer than Foxx and Farrell ended up. 

The script features some snappy dialogue exchanges and a couple of genuinely surprising twists that elevate it.  Some of the things that seem obvious or cliched are turned on their heads by the end.  The final climax of the film turns the relationship between Chance and Vukovich around entirely, adding a new and interesting dimension to the story (and the film's title).  Some of the secondary characters aren't particularly well developed, even ones that seem like they should be critical, such as a double-dealing lawyer (Dean Stockwell) and Masters' girl (Debra Feuer).

William Petersen owns the film, though.  Chance reminds me a great deal of Mel Gibson's Martin Riggs in "Lethal Weapon" two years after this film.  Chance is a risk-taker, almost recklessly so, in pursuit of his enemy.  His badge and his gun give him power, and a willingness to take matters into his own hands even when the law won't allow him.  Petersen doesn't give Chance the sort of wild-eyed insanity that Gibson would bring to Riggs, but instead makes him simply quick act, dealing with things as they come.

Dafoe makes a fine villain, as he often does, but delivers an understated performance here.  Rick Masters runs a slick operation, and he knows the sort of power he commands.  But he's not some kind of nigh-invincible Bond villain - Masters isn't a combat expert, and several people manage to get the drop on him in this film.  But he's scrappy, and manages to come out on top and get back to business, the driving force in his life.

Though the action sequences are few, there's enough pep in this movie's step to keep things from getting dull at any point.  A centerpiece chase sequence around LA is well shot and quite thrilling, featuring no music at all but just a dense sound field to ratchet up the realism and tension.  Even here, where driving into on-coming traffic might seem "been there, done that" is made exciting.

Still, there are a few parts where the film drags, as the slow-fast-slow pacing can sometimes get the best of it.  For the most part, however, this works to create a sense of unpredictability in the film, where the various double crosses and outbursts of violence can happen at any time and change the game.  If you can get past the totally 80s Wang Chung score, what you'll find is an intriguing, twisty crime thriller that feels far fresher than its vintage would imply.