Blu-ray Review: To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)

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Related Review
The French Connection I & II [Blu-ray]

In the black and white world of childhood, kids play cops and robbers where the line between the good guys and the bad guys is thicker than a box of sidewalk chalk.

Reaffirmed by everything from games to movies, before children discover the vast gray area and overlap between the fields, they learn that crooks never collected two hundred dollars on their way to jail, that heroes wear white hats or blue uniforms and the villains dark clothes, and in the end, justice always wins out.

Yet even after ascertaining that life doesn't always play by those "According to Hoyle" or John Wayne rules, filmmakers and writers still take a tremendous risk anytime they dare to blur the traditional archetypes to the point where you can't exactly tell the cops from the criminals.

And perhaps more than any other director post-Film Noir, William Friedkin knows this better than his contemporaries, having challenged the status quo to Oscar winning effect with his early '70s stunner The French Connection that presented us with the racist, antihero Officer Popeye Doyle.

Over a decade later and against the emergence of the underdog ventures or box office blockbusters releasing from the decade's titans Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, Friedkin once again tested studio and audience expectations alike with his sprawling, gritty, Neo-Noir masterwork To Live and Die in L.A..

So dangerously close to the truth that it involved more than one federal investigation from its inception as a novel by former Secret Service officer Gerald Petievich up through the on camera creation of counterfeit funds with only three flaws, To Live and Die in L.A. met with mixed critical response upon its 1985 theatrical run.

Despite earning a perfect four star review from a dazzled Roger Ebert, some dubbed it simply a high gloss version of Miami Vice and others accused it of being so gratuitously violent and extreme that the police were even worse than the criminals.

Admittedly, I do grant that it does go overboard both in its rapid cuts (to the awesomely influential Wang Chung soundtrack a la Vice) and in some of the beatings and shootouts which are done to excess. However, watching it today for the first time on Fox Blu-ray high definition, I was overwhelmed by not only the scope of Friedkin's film as well as another chase sequence that managed to easily top French Connection within its first of three to four different parts (depending on how you divide it up cinematically) but especially by the development of a handful of characters.

Likewise, I was also impacted by what I perceived was the film's major impact on the landscape of Neo-Noirs ever since, including Vice creator Michael Mann's epic Heat and French Connection 2 director John Frankenheimer's Ronin, along with Soderbergh's Traffic among others.

After his partner Jimmy Hart is killed only a few days before retirement, Los Angeles based U.S. Secret Service Agent Richard Chance (a terrific William Petersen) informs his replacement partner John Vukovich that he's determined to bring down Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe), the ruthless counterfeiter responsible for his death irregardless of whether or not he needs to break the law he's sworn to uphold to do it.

And from the way he base jumps off of bridges or blackmails a blonde parolee for information (and sex when he feels like it), we know that a man so cavalier that he lives by his last name of Chance will do just that, knocking down anything by car or by bullet that stands in his way from nailing Masters to the wall.

Obviously, the type of pre-Shield and NYPD Blue style gray area thinking that didn't warrant much of an audience during the Tom Cruise decade made and still makes this ruthless work so challenging today. Yet for those who are apt to put down the black and white sidewalk chalk and spend two hours in the gray, I guarantee you'll find the experience unparalleled for the cops and robbers genre in the '80s in one of Friedkin's best and likewise most underrated works.

Still quite timely considering the opening action sequence that finds a martyr ready to explode for Islam and in its emphasis on the funny money that talented but unscrupulous artist Masters makes in rented warehouses in a painstaking process from paint to poker chips to sell to those who don't have enough real green or real credit cards. movie is also fascinating on another layer of duality considering just how much in common our leads on opposite sides of the law have with one another.

From the similar first names of Richard and Rick to working in tightly knit groups where they would rather take a bullet than rat on a colleague to the passion to take what they sense is theirs and stop anyone who gets in their way, To Live and Die in L.A. disguises its existential and philosophical levels in the high octane action sequences of cars chasing one another the wrong way down a highway, getting hoodwinked by a feisty crook (John Turturro) and its race towards what we predict will be a blood soaked conclusion on both sides.

Complete with an eerie cyclical ending that repeats an idea subtly planted in the film earlier as we sense that the "get killed or get busted" mentality will go on for as long as there are cops and robbers, following up Fox's thrilling 2009 Friedkin approved Blu-ray transfer of The French Connection, once again the studio delivers another contemporary classic from its vaults in early 2010.

While the color may have been blown out a little as some of the images appear soft around the edges, in the right theatre setting, L.A. which has since been named one of Top 25 modern films set in Los Angeles, will still make your jaw drop in its intense depiction of men living on the edge, losing sight of everything but the final moment of revenge in this excellent 2-disc DVD/Blu-ray set.

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FTC Disclosure:
Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.