William Petersen (C.S.I., Manhunter) made his film debut in this William Friedkin crime flick about a secret service agent who obsessively pursues the counterfeiter (Willem Dafoe) who killed his partner. Paired with a conscientious new partner (John Pankow), Petersen bends the rules and crosses the line of the law in an attempt to bring Dafoe to justice. But as the case wears on, Petersen and Pankow become increasingly at odds with one another, and the line between cop and criminal becomes a blurry one.
In some ways, To Live and Die in L.A. serves as a west coast sister film to Friedkin’s New York-based The French Connection. Both unite a seasoned cop with a young partner on cases that take them into the murkier recesses of urban life. Friedkin tries to capture a kinetic spontaneity in each film, both in the performances and in their centerpiece car chase sequences. (Friedkin would curiously try again to top French Connection‘s famous car chase in 1995’s Jade.) The films are even alike in their thematic revelations, with William Petersen falling down a rabbit hole of self destruction much the way Gene Hackman did.
For the first half of the movie, what’s different about To Live and Die in L.A. is what bothered me about it. It’s so stylized that I kept thinking it was a Michael Mann movie instead of a William Friedkin one. The cutting, compositions, and camera movement draw attention to the filmmaking. Friedkin even changes the fonts from one garish choice to another whenever on-screen titles appear, reminding us what day and time it is. If the characters were interesting and engaging enough, I might not have fixated on the stylizations as much. But the first hour of this movie is dry and a bit bewildering. Does William Friedkin expect me to care about counterfeiting and police procedural alone? What is this movie really about?
Halfway through, things start to get exponentially more interesting. John Pankow’s character becomes one — the only one — I can invest in. As he considers whether to continue down Petersen’s corrupt path or calling him out, it becomes clear that To Live and Die in L.A. isn’t just another cat and mouse chase. It becomes a morality play and a cautionary tale… and possibly satire? Between Pankow’s performance, the plot twists, and a bold ending that shocks in the best way possible, To Live and Die in L.A. pulls it shit together and redeems its tedious first half. When the credits roll, Friedkin — a master manipulator — has succeeded in making a thesis that helps explain a lot that came before, and why it was the way it was — including the stylized and the shallow. The movie may be too conceptual for its own good, but that might make for an even more interesting second watch some day.
With John Turturro, Debra Feuer, Darlanne Fluegel, and Dean Stockwell.