The ‘80s were not as hos­pitable to direc­tor William Friedkin as the ‘70s were.  He didn’t enjoy any break­out hits like The Exorcist or The French Connection dur­ing this era: instead, he was stung by con­tro­ver­sy with Cruising and then made infre­quent movies that either didn’t con­nect with audi­ences or got buried like tladila-posRampageTo Live And Die In L.A. was one of those movies that didn’t score crit­i­cal or com­mer­cial suc­cess… and it’s a damn shame as it is one of his best films, a film that used an up-to-date style to com­mu­ni­cate a sub­ver­sive vision of the crime sto­ry on its own hard-edged terms.

The fiery core To Live And Die In L.A. revolves around is Richard Chance (William Petersen), a hot-tem­pered Secret Service agent who los­es his moral cen­ter of grav­i­ty when his part­ner is mur­dered.  The cul­prit is Eric Masters (Willem Dafoe), a self-styled aes­thete who uses his artist career as a front for his real liveli­hood, coun­ter­feit­ing mon­ey.  He’s too slick to leave any proof behind but Chance doesn’t care: he sets out to pur­sue Masters in defi­ance of his boss­es and the rules.  Caught in the mid­dle are his new part­ner Vukovich (John Pankow) and Chance’s informant/sometime lover Ruth (Darlanne Fluegel).

The afore­men­tioned plot might sound like anoth­er Dirty Harry deriv­a­tive but it plays out in a dif­fer­ent, chal­leng­ing way.  For starters, the script by Friedkin and Gerard Petievich, from the latter’s nov­el, doesn’t give the audi­ence a con­ven­tion­al good-bad dichoto­my.  Chance gets cru­el­er, more amoral and sui­ci­dal­ly risky as he pro­ceeds on his quest while Masters is por­trayed as his mir­ror image, some­one who thinks he lives by a code but is all too will­ing to use oth­ers for his own ends.  As the sto­ry approach­es its end, it sug­gests the dif­fer­ence between the two sides is a mat­ter of seman­tics and no one can resist get­ting caught in the under­tow of their pow­er plays.

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Friedkin’s direc­tion clev­er­ly seduces the audi­ence into its grim world­view by wrap­ping it in a glit­ter­ing style that off­sets its bleak take on the crime gen­re: the stun­ning cin­e­matog­ra­phy by Robby Muller finds the beau­ty in urban grit in a way sim­i­lar to his work in Repo Man and the pul­sat­ing, syn­th-lay­ered rock score by Wang Chung is one of the most under­rat­ed pop scores to any film from this era.  Friedkin uses their work to cre­ate some nerve-jan­gling action sce­nes along the way, includ­ing a mas­ter­ful car chase that involves going the wrong way down a busy L.A. free­way and a fiery ware­house-set finale.

To Live And Die In L.A. also keeps the view­er engaged with an ace cast of char­ac­ter actors and soon-to-be stars.  Petersen brings equal amounts of con­vic­tion and inten­si­ty to his anti­hero role, giv­ing a sur­face charm to his ever-more-chill­ing actions, while Dafoe is the pic­ture of icy, min­i­mal­ist cool as his neme­sis.  Pankow serves as the audi­ence iden­ti­fi­ca­tion fig­ure, with his ner­vous reac­tions to his partner’s car­nage feel­ing all too believ­able to view­ers, and Fluegel does a low-key, sym­pa­thet­ic vari­a­tion on the usu­al infor­mant char­ac­ter.  Their work is sup­port­ed by an array of vivid sup­port­ing turns: Dean Stockwell as a calm­ly amoral defense lawyer, John Turturro as a jit­tery crime asso­ciate to Masters, Debra Feuer as a resource­ful moll for Masters and erst­while Cannon action star Steve James as a pris­on-con­nect­ed crook who lives to regret team­ing up with Masters.

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In short, To Live With Die In L.A. is a must-watch for any­one inter­est­ed in Friedkin’s career or chal­leng­ing crime films in gen­er­al.  It’s the sun-baked flip­side of The French Connection, using its pret­ti­ness to con­ceal a sting that is as jagged as that of its grit­ty New York coun­ter­part.