Based on a novel by former Secret Service agent Gerald Petievich (who also cowrote the screenplay adaptation), William Friedkin's To Live and Die in L.A. in 1985 was an edgy, eye-opening glimpse into a world we'd never before seen. When it debuted, its intricate looks at counterfeiting and the sweaty nihilism of the government agent—combined with the noir machinations of a subversive Hollywood thriller—made To Live and Die in L.A. the crime thriller to see. It helped that the movie boasted one of the best car chases in film history. And although time hasn't been exactly kind to some of its elements, this film stands up—especially for fans who saw it in theaters.
Richard Chance (William Petersen) is a Secret Service agent who lives on the edge. He's a hot-headed bastard so immersed in his job that his personal life is only an extension of it, as witnessed by his mutually parasitic relationship with his stripper girlfriend/informant Ruth (Darlanne Fluegel). As the story begins, he's bidding farewell to a longtime partner and finding himself newly in league with young John Vukovich (Mad About You's John Pankow), a man in search of a role model but stuck with the increasingly corrupt Chance, as they relentlessly pursue the sleazy but unquestionably talented counterfeiter Eric Masters (Willem Dafoe, looking spry). Problems arise when the duo needs some crimestopper capital to engineer a major funny-money bust, and they make a gigantic mistake. But that's okay, because while they're making said mistake, they take part in a genuinely thrilling car chase on the freeways of Los Angeles—all shot on location, no digital trickery here. The fine line between cop and criminal becomes increasingly blurred, and by the film's spectacular ending, you'll wonder who you should've been rooting for all along.
To Live and Die in L.A. has a Miami Vice color palette and sound design that ground the film firmly in the 80s. The editing and the acting style also echo of the age of Wang Chung. Those aspects might seem at odds with the film's darkly criminal underpinnings, and I admit that some of those MTV grooves clang a little too loudly over the plot. But in another way entirely, the music and the mood will get you all nostalgic for that cool era of thrillers—that era between the studied crime sagas of the 70s (think The Conversation) and the goofy, more empty-headed thrillers of the 90s (think the Lethal Weapon series)—that at least took risks while they were wearing their era like a brand.
The cast does a uniformly fine job working their mouths around the clipped, neo-noir dialog of Friedkin's script. Peterson and Pankow, in their first big roles, acquit themselves with the raw, screaming power of youthful actors trying to prove themselves. Dafoe is slimy and conflicted in a role that demands both. And the women are by turns troubled and manipulative. And with To Live and Die in L.A., I thought Friedkin might be marking a big return to form, resuscitating a career that had included the masterpieces The French Connection and The Exorcist. No, unfortunately, To Live and Die in L.A. can be seen, rather, as Friedkin's last great film. Has he got another one in him?
HOW'S IT LOOK?
MGM presents To Live and Die in L.A. in a moderately disappointing anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original 1.85:1 theatrical presentation. I knew I was in for a bit of trouble when I saw the muddiness and smeared reds of the opening titles. The image has a generally aged and soft appearance, looking quite dated, even in close-ups. Shadow detail is also poor. Flesh tones seem fairly accurate but contain, I think, a little too much yellow. The entire presentation is flat, and many scenes are plagued with mosquito noise. I also noticed minor ringing on hard edges and some distracting edge halos.
That sounds pretty bad, doesn't it? Well, it's not horrible, but it's not great, either. This image could have benefited from a full restoration.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc's Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation is comparatively strong. I've always loved the Wang Chung score, despite the fact that it has aged awkwardly, and it comes across quite powerfully here. As far as dialog and sound effects, fidelity has suffered over the years, resulting in some hollowness and brittleness, especially at the top end. But the surround channels are used effectively in several scenes, notably the car chase and the conflagration at the film's end.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
MGM has bestowed a generous-but-not-overwhelming array of supplements on a film that truly deserves the special-edition treatment. These are strong supplements, down to the last detail, and there's something I like about a collection of extras that doesn't demand several days worth of your time. You can get through these illuminating supplements in about 3 hours.
The Audio Commentary by Director William Friedkin is a very good listen, in which the director speaks almost nonstop about the ideas behind and the creation of the film. He states right up front that he's going to avoid a studiously scene-specific approach and instead go for a broader discussion, and although he doesn't stick with that entirely, he provides some terrific background information. Particularly interesting moments include information about his collaboration with the original novelist on the screenplay, problems he encountered with the government because of the film's counterfeiting aspects, and his efforts in casting the film. I also liked that he took the time to examine the film and his own themes closely, talking about the "thin line between the policeman and the criminal," a major thematic concern of To Live and Die in L.A. He speaks of the metaphor of the "counterfeit world," which is carried throughout the film. And at the very end, he talks about the DVD's meticulous video transfer, how it looks better than it ever looked in theaters. (Hmmm.) Unfortunately, there are quite a few overlaps with the disc's documentary.
DVD Talk's own Glenn Erickson ("DVD Savant") edits the entertaining and informative Counterfeit World: The Making of To Live and Die in L.A., a 29-minute featurette that boasts new interviews with Friedkin, Peterson, Pankow, Dafoe, Fluegel, and members of the crew. This is a fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse of the apparently down-and-dirty production. Much is made of Friedkin's streamlined directorial style, and the actors get a chance to talk about their approaches to their characters. I particularly enjoyed the discussions of the counterfeiting sequence and the climactic chase scene, which was filmed "by the seat of the pants." There's a great bit a trivia to be learned about that chase, but watch out for a huge spoiler at the end of this piece.
Next up is an Alternate Ending Featurette, a 2.5-minute piece about a ludicrous ending that the studio demanded that Friedkin shoot. All involved seem embarrassed of this scene, with good reason. Peterson says it's like the "Eddie Murphy version of To Live and Die in L.A." It would have ruined the film, in my opinion. Tacked on to the end of the featurette is the entire 5.5-minute scene, which also includes all the film's end credits. You can also choose to watch the Alternate Ending Only. I'm amazed this footage was even considered, let alone shot!
You also get a Deleted Scene Featurette, a 1-minute prelude to a scene involving Vukovich and his ex-wife (Tracy Swope). Friedkin says that if he could, he'd integrate it back into the film. The scene itself is 2 minutes long, and of poor video quality, and you can choose to watch it as a Deleted Scene Only.
Wrapping things up are a black-and-white Stills Gallery, the Theatrical Trailer and Teaser Trailer for To Live and Die in L.A. (in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen), and trailers for La Femme Nikita, Fargo, and Dark Blue.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
To Live and Die in L.A. makes its DVD debut not explosively but with a modest bang. Image and sound quality are both dated, and the video in particular could have used some more work. The supplements, however, are top-notch (though modest). At least this DVD ain't a dud.