“To Live and Die in L.A.” is a natural evolution of the themes of “The French Connection.” I like William Friedkin. With the exception of the muddled “The Guardian,” I’ve liked-to-loved everything of his I’ve seen. But “The French Connection” didn’t blow me over like it does some many. I found it mostly to be a fairly effective crime thriller with a great lead performance. Even the often touted car chase didn’t excite me that much. I don’t know, maybe I need to rewatch it.
By 1985, the cop genre had become an established part of movie and TV screens. This film is a major deconstruction of many of the reoccurring clichés and tropes of the genre. We have a renegade cop. (actually, a Secret Service agent, but close enough. The same rules apply.) He goes off the rule book, breaks the law in order to go after the criminals, and doesn’t have a good relationship with Da Chief. His old partner, who he respects above all else, is killed three days before retirement, by the main villain of the film, of course. (The dude even fucking says, “I’m getting too old for this shit.”) Our out-of-control cop is partnered up with a by-the-book, straight-laced guy, who is constantly shocked by his partner’s crazy actions.
However, instead of being a likable rogue who strives against authority in order to get the bad guy, Richard Chance is a reckless, gruff, mean-spirited, unlikable asshole. Early on, the character is shown base-diving and the movie makes it clear that his increasingly reckless behavior has more to do with thrill-seeking then righting wrongs. He is cold and emotionless with his girlfriend, a police informant. Midway through the movie, he legitimately breaks the damn law, gets a guy killed, and causes a huge car crash. We then find out that he’s in even deeper shit then we previously thought. The filmmakers and writer seems to agree that Chance is just a dick, considering the shocking plot-twist that happens at the end. Moreover, his partner, who looks all the life like the cliched nervous Jew, is allowed to freak-out, acting like a total nervous wreck throughout the movie’s most intense sequence. This is, of course, the most logical response with being stuck in the backseat of a car driven by a lunatic. The intensity and immorality of the situations he finds himself in has a realistically adverse effect on his psyche. The movie takes the clichés of the genre and extends them to their most brutal, logical conclusion.
In total contrast, the villain of the movie is way more likable then the hero. Willem DaFoe is a very good actor and this movie drawls attention to the fact that he could have been a handsome leading man. At least at this point in time, he was a good-looking guy with a lot of acting chops. However, he’s also got the voice of a slithering, sleazy snake, typecasting him as the bad guy or psychopaths in countless films to come. DaFoe’s Eric Masters is still a pretty bad person, being a counterfeiter, a murderer, and a cold-hearted criminal. But he’s also organized, rational, controlled, and sensible for what he does, contrasting him completely with the increasingly out-of-control Chance. Masters is even romantic and gentle with his girlfriend.
The movie functions fantastically as an action movie as well, albeit an incredibly nihilistic one. Friedkin set out to top the car chase of “The French Connection” and totally succeeds. It’s a long sequence and just keeps going further over-the-top, before climaxing in a great scene that has our “heroes” driving against the grain of busy, freeway traffic. And, boy, is this movie bloody. In non-horror films, shotgun blasts to the face really have this much splatter. There's even some, mostly unexplained, homoerotic tension between Chance and Masters. The two undress in front of each other in a gym, lounge around in just a towel in a steam room, call each other "Beautiful." There's one scene where, I swear to God, the two are about to kiss each other. And mention most go to Wang Chang's snyth score. Now, it mostly just marks the movie as an unintentional period piece of the eighties, but it does work. It certainly better then anything, say, Tangerine Dream would have come up with.
Like all great deconstructions, Friedkin seems to have wanted to put the cop movie out of its misery with a bloody bullet to the head. It didn’t work, of course, but “To Live and Die in LA” stands out as a brilliantly downbeat, gritty piss-take on the classic cop movie formulas.