To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) — Taking crime down at all costs

“I’m an easy guy to find. People know they can trust me.”

Kyle’s rating: Sometimes it takes evil to fight evil

Kyle’s review: How far would you go if something important was taken violently from you? What kind of retribution would you seek: an eye for an eye, or just a pound of flesh? If you can’t decide for yourself, consider this: How far do you want somebody you think of as a good guy to go to bring the bad guy down? How far can a good guy go before he becomes a bad guy? If the good guy is corrupted completely but ultimately he manages to take the bad guy down, is it all worth it in the end?

Not only is To Live and Die in L.A. a film full of ultra-violence shot through an art house prism (thanks to the unique direction of William Friedkin, The Exorcist), but it is also a film that raises a lot of questions about what it means to be a hero and what it means to be a successful enforcer of the law.

William Petersen plays a maverick Secret Service agent Richard Chance (they do more than just protect VIPs, you know) who goes from walking the razor’s edge to diving off of it when his partner is killed by a counterfeiter (Willem Dafoe). Are there a lot of people named “Will” associated with this movie or is it me?

Anyway, Peterson decides that to avenge his partner he’s going to take Dafoe down and he is going to do whatever it takes to do it, whether his new partner agrees with his methods or not. Although Dadoes isn’t going to make it too easy for him…

Just as the dark underbelly of Petersen’s “good” guy is exposed, so too is the dark side of Los Angeles held up to the dust-choked light of California for us to see. This L.A. is all dirty highways, industrial zones, and desert setting with power lines everywhere. This isn’t the Lethal Weapon series where the cops are in the nice parts of town; here we get to see the worst this city has to offer. Fittingly, the best accommodations are the ones kept by the bad guy and his sleazy lawyer (Dean Stockwell).

One of the ironies of this movie is the way Dafoe comes across as the most sane and civilized character despite being the villain: He respects his fellow criminals, plays by a twisted code of honor, dabbles in painting, and plans everything he does.

On the other hand, Petersen blackmails a women for sex and information, he bends and eventually breaks laws like dry spaghetti strands to get what he wants, and in the film’s highlight car chase, he puts hundreds of motorists in harm’s way to avoid capture by mysterious and well-armed pursuers (and wait till you see who they are and why they’re after him!). It’s a weird scene, man, and it makes for an odd viewing experience because you’re almost not sure just who to root for. After all, just who are the good guys in this one?

I really recommend this movie. I picked it up based on how cool Petersen is in CSI and I wasn’t disappointed. He’s a cool dude and if it weren’t for his innate cool good guy charm this would be one very bleak and soulless film. Dafoe is a charismatic and honorable villain who knows how to take care of his girlfriend, and he instills his character with love for the artistic process of counterfeiting and distaste for the violence his profession entails.

Everyone else is cool, but the film is all about those two and the collision course they’re set on from the get go. If you can’t handle violence and profanity and moral dilemmas skip this one, but you want to see an underrated cop film that made antiheroes look good years before Lethal Weapon and Die Hard did, look no further than To Live and Die in LA.

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