TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A.: William Friedkin Decontructs The Alpha Male

William Peterson’s Richard Chance is one of cinema’s most swinging dick, alpha male, douche bag protagonists of all time, and director/master William Friedkin’s To Live And Die In L.A. is all the better for it. A live wire secret service agent on the tail of the counterfeiter who killed his partner, Chance will stop at nothing to bring Eric Masters (Willem Dafoe) to justice. He’ll put his own life on the line, or anyone else’s. He’ll take the law into his own hands, or throw it in your face to get his way. He’s despicable, and you can’t take your eyes off him. The same is true of Willem Dafoe. Dafoe is a fearless actor who has proven himself decade after decade, but he’s never been as icily beautiful as he is here.

It’s hard to say William Friedkin was in top form with this film being that he crafted the greatest horror film of all time (The Exorcist) and the greatest cop film of all time (The French Connection). But damn if Friedkin hasn’t earned the right to be called one of the greatest American filmmakers with To Live And Die In L.A. being an important exhibit among the evidence. He brings his high energy and ultra intelligence to this film, offering a whole lot to say even as heart pounding chase sequences hint at an action movie giving way to something more.

Having very little to do with procedural secret service business in all reality, the film tends to focus more on the ultimate confrontation between its characters. Despite this, there’s a Michael Mann-level attention to detail given to Masters’ counterfeit operation, showing many of the true life techniques used by high end counterfeiters at the time. Add to that a dated but wonderful score by Wang Chung, a chase sequence for the ages from stunt coordinator Buddy Joe Hooker, and a blow-your-face-off third act that’s as fearless as it is rarely attempted, and To Live And Die In L.A. gets to have its cake and eat it too. Both excellent, A-list action film and deconstruction of the alpha male wild card cop cliche, Friedkin furiously displays his mastery of the form with this phenomenal 1980s thriller.

SPOILERS

In the most jaw-dropping moment of the film, our lead character, the most extreme bro, gets his face blown off in an unceremonious deal gone wrong. It’s fast, it’s almost unprecedented, and it is the very thing that makes this movie special and sets it apart from so many others just like it. Chance’s partner John Vukovich (John Pankow) has been trying to “man up” for the entire movie and be the partner that Chance needs him to be. He’s attempting to prove himself by going down the corrupt trail that Chance is blazing. It’s sad to watch, as the adrenaline junkie all-American stops at nothing to bring down the effeminate art criminal Eric Masters. Chance’s death opens a void that Vukovich chooses to fill. Taking down Masters, shacking up with the female informant that Chance has been using and abusing throughout the film, and even driving the same frat-boy pickup truck… Friedkin uses Chance’s death to highlight the toxicity of alpha masculinity, the relentlessness of corruption, and the blurred line between criminals and cops. I guess the film is cynical, but the boldness of the storytelling is so singular that a film fan can’t help but feel that this is something special.

The Package

Shout! Factory knows us geeks. They’ve learned that if they slap a spine number on the Blu-ray and call their product special, we’ll fall in love with it. I can’t deny this to be true for me. I love this title, but I also love that Shout are choosing to release some titles under a new banner called Shout Selects. It’s a bit of a stamp of approval, singling out a small number of their titles as great films, and it works like gangbusters. This release feels like it’s honoring a great film by treating it with the respect it deserves. And it is doing that… even if its ultimate goal is to get dollars out of customers’ wallets.

Our own Austin Vashaw has done an excellent and in depth look at the new 4K restoration found on this disc. He thinks both this new release and the original Blu-ray release both look top notch, but he actually prefers the previous release’s look. I swing the other way. I enjoy the punched up color and clarity of this new version. It’s a William Friedkin film, so either way it’s visually dynamic.

On top of a new scan of a classic film, there are also plenty of bonus features to satiate Friedkin fans. There’s a Friedkin commentary, and the hilariously bad alternative ending the studios forced Friedkin to shoot which undermines the entire value of the movie. There are a bunch of marketing materials for the film as well. But perhaps most importantly, there are several newly produced bonus features for this release which make it an obvious purchase for fans of the film. Most stand out, for me, was seeing Stunt Coordinator Buddy Joe Hooker go into detail on the remarkable car chase, even to the extent of sitting there with original diagrams drawn for the proper execution of the sequence. It’s a treasure. You’ll also get a whole bunch of anecdotes from William Peterson and the guys from Wang Chung.

This is a top notch release worthy of the Shout! Selects label and a film that needs to be seen by any crime film aficionado.

And I’m Out.

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the author

Ed changed careers and moved halfway across the country from Maryland to Austin with his amazingly understanding wife just to figure out how to earn a living watching movies. He once heard it said that NY/LA are where you go to MAKE movies, but Austin is where you go to WATCH movies. And that is the truth. But seriously, if anyone knows how to make a living watching movies, please let him know. Twitter: @Ed_Travis