A federal agent is dead. A killer is loose. And the City of Angels is about to explode.
To Live and Die in L.A. is one of director William Friedkin’s best movies and one of the most underrated movies of the 1980s. While it doesn’t get the attention of Friedkin’s own The French Connection or Michael Mann’s Manhunter, another stylish ‘80s thriller that happens to share star William Petersen, To Live and Die in L.A. is a masterpiece among crime films, with shocking turns, a first-rate cast of mostly then-unknowns and one of the best car chases ever put to screen. It is a worthy addition to the new Shout Select line, a division of Shout! Factory dedicated to releasing special editions of more contemporary classics.
Chicago’s own William Petersen (Fear) stars as U.S. Secret Service agent Richard Chance, a reckless and hotheaded government operative on the hunt for counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe, Shadow of the Vampire). When his partner is killed — and just days away from retirement, wouldn’t you know — Chance is teamed up with new by-the-book partner John Vukovich (John Pankow, Mad About You) and swears to bring Masters down no matter what it takes. From there, it’s an ever-escalating series of chases, sting operations and close calls at Chance and Vukovich get closer and closer and Masters, feeling the heat closing in, becomes more dangerous than before. Someone’s not walking away from this one.
I can hardly express how much I love To Live and Die in L.A., a movie that rocked me to my core when I first say it many years ago and which continues to impress me as much — if not more — every time I revisit it. Bringing the same crackling energy and visceral intensity he imbued into his classic The French Connection, director (and co-writer, having collaborated with Gerald Petievich, who wrote the book on which the movie is based) William Friedkin creates yet another cops-and-robbers masterpiece. It is a movie that doesn’t just follow a reckless protagonist, but perfectly reflects his worldview through filmmaking — the movie actually feels dangerous, as though these characters manage to get out of scrapes and survive partially by skill but mostly by chance (pun intended). Having more or less written the book on car chases with his work on The French Connection, Friedkin consciously outdoes himself with a sequence in To Live and Die in L.A. in which the hero cops, having crossed the line to commit a robbery (in the name of bringing down Masters), have to escape by driving down the L.A. freeway against oncoming traffic. It isn’t just an incredible piece of technical filmmaking and an exciting sequence, either; Friedkin makes sure that the moment is built out of character and necessity.
Beyond the incredible direction and the cast of character actors — besides Petersen, Pankow and Dafoe, there’s John Turturro and Dean Stockwell and Robert Downey Sr. and even the incomparable Steve James in supporting roles — To Live and Die in L.A. is one of the quintessential action crime films of the ‘80s for the way it embraces a slick, colorful, New Wave aesthetic. So seemingly similar was the film to Michael Mann’s groundbreaking TV series Miami Vice, in fact, that Mann reportedly tried to sue Friedkin for plagiarism but lost (a story that Friedkin has denied). The movie is so brilliantly stylized that it has long been too easy to dismiss it as a case of surfaces over substance, but To Live and Die in L.A. succeeds at both. It is a character study of two men on opposite sides of the law who are not all that different (more shades of Mann), a tense and thrilling action movie and a kickass crime picture that shows us things we’ve never seen in a movie before, whether it’s a lengthy sequence detailing how counterfeit money could be made (tweaked to be slightly less accurate) or the car chase or some third act twists that haven’t been topped in the 30 years since the movie was released.
Though previously issued on Blu-ray from MGM (minus the special features included on their DVD), the movie has been given a new director-approved 4K remastering for this new Shout Select Blu. The new transfer is more stylized than the old one, with less emphasis on natural light and skin tones and more focus on colors that pop — particularly the red and orange side of the spectrum. The change, though not server, is sure to upset some A/V aficionados who don’t understand why Friedkin keeps messing with his films long after the fact, but the changes aren’t enough to sour me on what is, for the most part, a stunning transfer — bold, sharp and detailed enough to look like it was shot yesterday, save for the very ‘80s stylization. Both a lossless 5.1 surround and 2.0 stereo mix are included; I mostly checked out the 5.1 track, which is lively and loud and quite good. The majority of the audio is reserved for the front and center channels, but Wang Chung’s score and the explosive action effects (including that legendary car chase) give the rest of the speakers a workout.
Shout! Factory has restored all of the bonus features from MGM’s old collector’s edition DVD and added a few of their own, making for the most comprehensive release of To Live and Die in L.A. yet to be released. The Friedkin commentary and 30-minute “making of” featurette are here, as the still gallery, radio spot, trailer, deleted scene and alternate ending, which drastically changes the events of the movie and denies it the impact it earns in the theatrical cut. New to Shout’s Blu-ray is a collection of interviews, beginning with star William Petersen, who talks about his fortuitous casting (thanks, Gary Sinise) and his experiences making the movie. He has only good things to say about the film and Friedkin, but his stories are really fun (and if you close your eyes, he actually sounds a whole lot like the director…maybe it’s a Chicago thing?). Also interviewed are stunt coordinator Buddy Joe Hooker, whose comments refer mostly to that car chase, as well as composers Wang Chung and co-stars Dwier Brown and Debra Feuer.
It has been very rewarding over the last 10 years or so to see a couple of William Friedkin’s lesser-known movies — mostly Sorcerer and To Live and Die in L.A. — get recognized in the same breath as his more widely accepted masterpieces The French Connection and The Exorcist. It’s a film that absolutely belongs in that class. The Shout! Select Blu-ray offers and fantastic A/V presentation and a lot of cool extras to make it worth the upgrade or even a blind buy. There were a lot of great crime pictures released in the ‘80s, but this is one of the best.