By 1985 Miami Vice was a year old, a runaway sensation that codified all of the 80’s action genre signifiers: pastel mood lighting; John Carpenter-patented propulsive soundtrack interrupted by the contemporary rock hit; urban neon landscapes; and a snarky, too tough to care leading star. This was a breezy, stylish world that lobotomized the paranoid 70’s thriller, and instead of a corrupt government bearing down on the hero, it was now career criminals made rich off of victimless-crime empires. Their biggest sin was confidently inhabiting a life of privilege that the hero could only intrude upon through the law.
To Live and Die in LA comes off as a pastiche, as a Simpson’s McBain episode come to life. The opening sequence involves presidential assassination attempt that ends in a suicide bombing to screams of “Allah Akbar”, and only goes deeper from there.
Not only does evil counterfeiter Eric Masters (Willem Dafoe) kill Secret Service agent Richard Chance’s (William Petersen) partner, the guy was three days away from retirement! Explicitly stated: “I’m too old for this shit”! Masters leaves calling cards at the scene of the crime--poker chips! The only significant women in the movie work at strip clubs! Chance is such a daredevil he base jumps for the thrill of it! Masters is an abstract painter that burns his self portraits!
Even when the genre was fresher these must have registered as glaring cliches. By the time the big car chase shows up--it’s spectacular by the way--I was laughing. But seeing an action movie in its purest form is a special pleasure in this era of PG-13 action which dictates death with no blood and only one uttering of profanity for the entire picture. To Live and Die in L.A. most certainly earns its hard R rating.
And then the twist hits. In order to enjoy the setup, I had to tune out a bit, lower expectations and go along for the ride. This is a neat trick seldom attempted and seldom achieved. I can think of only the Maltese Falcon and Psycho who could lay their cards out in plain view yet still surprise me in such a way.
There are early indications that this world was more complicated than it seemed. John Turturro’s Carl Cody, arrested early in the film and a direct link to Masters manages to outsmart both Masters and Chance benefitting from their low estimation of him. Friedkin never misses an opportunity to stylize a scene. In the beginning it’s easy to write this off as period window dressing, but the complexity of the shots only increases as a film draws on. Friedkin eventually works in a couple masterful mirror shots that would’ve made Fritz Lang proud. Eventually these start to register. Chance and Masters final encounter occurs in a deliberately nondescript gym locker room, the absence of artifice ultimately weighs a ton.
It becomes clear that everything we see is heavily indebted to Chance and Master’s point of view. Chance didn’t see himself as Don Johnson, he saw Don Johnson as the cheap imitation. He’s the hot swinging alpha male, action star. Masters is the diabolical villain. Ruth Lanier is the captive muse, completely Chance’s property raped for inspiration just like in mythology.
Masters sees himself as the puppet master, running the whole game. Three steps ahead of all threats. He winds up betrayed, used, and discarded by all of his confidants and associates over the course of the film.
Freed from that perspective the world suddenly becomes somewhat more multi dimensional. All the nagging questions about the casting come into focus. William Petersen looks like a television actor, even decades before his eventual success on CSI. He looks like a normal guy actively building his reality around Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop. Indeed, everyone seems to be playing to an idealized extreme. Inventing a world for themselves where where counterfeiters are criminal figures of intrigue, and where the Secret Service allows for hotshot detective work.
Willem Dafoe’s subsequent film work would establish him as one the preeminent film actors. He’s specially suited to cinema monsters. The weight of those roles strengthens this early appearance, but that should be put aside. It’s important to look at Dafoe as how he’d seem at the time: pale, short, and skinny, not at all physically imposing when separated from from his intense demeanor.
This is the world of L.A. that invites the Masters and Chances of the world to recast its strip clubs, sun baked buildings, and deserts in the service of whichever archetype they desire. Like many young actors flocking to Hollywood, you can imagine that even their names were deliberately changed to suit their ideal. “Masters” and “Chance” boils down the aspirations of these characters much too perfectly into single words.
In the end its the enablers that survive To Live and Die in L.A., and enablers are the true power players. There will be new criminals and detectives, each looking to bolster themselves to legendary status. They are interchangeable, replaceable. Another Chance and another Masters, slightly different but just as self devoted. It’s fitting that the prime mode of dispatch for the main characters is a bullet to the face, a gruesome end that burrows straight through any claim to ego and invincibility.
To Live and Die in L.A. was a hit in its day but maintains only a modest following. Even if the film builds to a challenging climax, the audience still needs to wade through any number of blatant cliches and over the top displays of violence, sexism, and political incorrectness. And the reward is more blatant sexism and violence. It remains a perfect action film regardless.