Directed by William Friedkin, and starring William L. Petersen, Willem Dafoe, and John Pankow, To Live and Die in L.A. is a stylish, sun soaked, gritty crime thriller that follows Secret Service agent Richard Chase (Petersen), as he and his new partner John Vukovich (Pankow) try and take down a counterfeiter (Dafoe) who killed Chance’s last partner and best friend (Michael Greene).
Right off the bat, To Live and Die in L.A. exhumes an aesthetic brought upon by its setting, direction, and music (written and composed by band Wang Chung). Friedkin’s direction takes us through a bright but seedy city; at times flashy, at other times calculated, often taking time to let the scene linger as we contemplate what’s in front of us on screen, whether it’s a sunrise, a traffic jam, or Dafoe’s face. The film hinges strongly upon its style, from its unique ways of telling the time and date of a scene to the aforementioned soundtrack. However, whereas in a lesser film the style might be compensating for a weak story and characters, the style only enhances the story, characters, and themes featured in To Live and Die in L.A.
Chase is already a bit unhinged, but when his former partner gets killed, it drives him closer to the edge, and Petersen sells it frighteningly. This is a man who lives for the thrill, and won’t let government bureaucracy get in the way of his revenge. While at first you can see where he’s coming from, it becomes apparent as the film goes on that Chase isn’t very stable, leading to a series of dangerous and deadly events. It also doesn’t help that Chase looks and dresses really cool and pulls of a leather jacket and sunglasses like so few can.
Chase is contrasted by his new partner Vukovich, who’s a much more moral and ethically sound person than him. Not only that, but he seems much more nervous and uptight, causing him and Chase to bicker at times, which only gets worse as the story develops. Pankow is exceptional as Vukovich, providing a foil for Petersen’s Chase, whether it comes to the ethics of their work or if a situation gets too hairy. You can see the despair in his eyes when shit goes from bad to worse, and how it starts to break him as a person. It’s a testament to the performance that I was expecting Vukovich to be just a lame sidekick but ended up completely invested in his character and arc by the film’s end.
And let’s not forget Willem Dafoe as Rick Master. What could have been a straight up bad guy is played with both relish and nuance by Dafoe, providing us with a character who’s much more complex than he himself lets on. Whether he’s gazing at his work (art pieces and counterfeit bills), hanging with his partner in crime (Debra Feuer), or taking care of business, there’s never not a scene that Dafoe doesn’t own. He’s both fun and compelling as a man who’s well known in his field, and if you try to get one over on him, you won’t succeed. His interactions with everyone he comes into contact with vary, but all carry a sinister weight. It also helps that Dafoe can just use his face to intimidate.
Running throughout the film from start to finish is music by none other then Wang Chung. Aside from a couple other tracks used in the background here and there, this is Wang Chung’s show, whether it’s traditional songs or instrumentals that set the mood. Some motifs are repeated, but it’s all in service to the film’s aesthetic. Whether it’s the title song or an instrumental, the music sets the mood as the camera shows us the City of Angeles in all its sunny glory.
It’s that sun and music that runs in tangent with the narrative, and almost helps offset the things we see on-screen. To Live and Die in L.A. goes to dark places, and the film’s setting seems to almost exist as a way to contrast its characters and their stories with the sunny and bright city they live and die in. But by being such noticeable contrasts, they end up being just as grim as everything else in the film. To Live and Die in L.A. is not straight forward, and it’s this concoction of music, narrative, and character that results in a thrilling but dower film, one which can be just as fun to watch as it is depressing to experience. Once all is said and done and the end credits are taking you through a tour of the city with Wang Chung accompanying, you’ve only just begun to experience the sensation that the film leaves on you. Because To Live and Die in L.A. doesn’t just cut and run–it hits you like a blistering sun.