Revisiting To Live and Die in L.A. (Fox) twenty-five after its original release turned out to be a treat and an eye-opener. While on the one hand you can hold it up as the quintessential expression of the era’s music video aesthetics and sleek, slick style, it’s also a distinctively singular, perfectly pitched action thriller from William Friedkin, a director in full command of his tools, including the high-octane style of neon surfaces, rapid editing and driving music.
William L. Petersen was poised to make the leap from respected stage actor to intense screen star when he was cast as Secret Service agent Richard Chance, a rising star working in the Treasury Department who thrives on the adrenaline of the job. When his mentor, partner and best friend is murdered while following up a lead on counterfeiter Rick Masters (a feral Willem Dafoe in his breakthrough performance), he goes rogue and drags his new partner, the smart but still green John Vukovich (John Pankow), into his increasingly reckless stunts. The film’s defining scene is the ingenious, nerve racking car chase that sends Chance and Vukovich up an off-ramp the wrong direction on the L.A. freeway, swerving and skidding around oncoming traffic. But that scene is actually the climactic punch of a much longer, brilliantly composed car chase that begins in the no man’s land under the freeway (where they have just ripped off a smuggler), carries us into traffic with a perfectly executed traveling crane that reveals the chase car closing in and sends us winding through the freight-strewn alleys of this warehouse district and into the empty L.A. basin, where suddenly a small army of cars join in and up the stakes. There’s more to the little smuggling operation that they hijacked than meets the eye and they’ve got no idea just how badly they f****d up.
Adapted from the novel by former Secret Service man Gerald Petievich by Friedkin and Petievich, it’s a cynical and brutal portrait (both physically and emotionally) of the federal cops walking the edge and a cold portrayal of the power games between cops and feds, and cops and informants, and makes a great bookend to The French Connection, the cop thriller that originally made the director’s reputation. Friedkin creates a jittery atmosphere of adrenaline and corruption and danger, enhanced by a surprisingly effective techno soundtrack by Wang Chung (easily the band’s best work ever) and draws savage performances from his entire cast, which includes Debra Feuer as Dafoe’s sexy lover, Darlanne Fluegel as the informant parolee that Chance keeps under his thumb, John Turturro as a courier arrested by Chance and Dean Stockwell as the counterfeiter’s high-priced attorney.
It now makes the jump to Blu-ray and uses the high-def format to lock in those brilliant colors (steely blues against hazy red and orange skies and the neon pools in the nocturnal netherworlds of L.A.’s club scene) and the sharp, hard photography of Robby Muller, whose searing vision of a underside of the city in a perpetual haze remains just as distinctive and defining. The Blu-ray disc is packaged with a bonus DVD version of the film and the supplements—including the sharp and articulate commentary by Friedkin—are on the accompanying DVD. It also includes the half-hour documentary “Counterfeit World: The Making of To Live and Die in L.A.,” a deleted scene and an alternate ending (both with an introduction by William Friedkin), all from the previously-released DVD edition.