The Los Angeles branch of the Secret Service needs to have a training program for its agents, to educate each of them to never go on a mission alone. If 1985’s To Live and Die in L.A. is to believed, the agency loses an employee almost every time this happens.
I couldn’t think of a single good reason for Michael Greene, as one of those agents, to go to a remote location in the desert by himself as he follows the trail of a forger played by Willem Dafoe. Greene doesn’t just tempt fate, but practically begs to be offed. He’s only two days away from retirement and he says in a pre-credits sequence, “I’m getting too old for this shit.” It’s like the god of movie clichés is just waiting to drop the hammer on this guy. I was also amused by how he can’t figure out a way over a security fence until seeing a convenient palette nearby. I spent way too much time wondering what his original plan was.
Greene was William Petersen’s partner in the service. Petersen is the kind of guy who plays fast, has no time for rules…yada yada yada. He base-jumps off a bridge to impress his macho friends, and I can imagine his parents hanging their heads in shame, recalling how many times they advised him, “If one of your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do it?”
Petersen is the anti-hero of the film. To be honest, there are no fully-fledged heroes in this movie, and I can handle that. What did appall me a bit is how the picture seems to condone his asshole-ish behavior merely by its completely objective portrayal of it. My biggest beef is his treatment of Darlanne Fluegel, a stool pigeon he is pumping for information and also just pumping. He says he will have her parole recalled if she stops providing information, with the implication he will do the same if she stops providing something else, as well.
One element of this feature which had me scratching my head is the extent of bloodshed and property damage resulting from his actions in pursuit of a counterfeiter. This includes multiple deaths (including that of at least one agent), theft and kidnapping. There’s an amazing pursuit scene where he intentionally drives the wrong way on the interstate, so who knows how many innocent civilians were injured or killed in that escapade. Once again, all of this was to catch a counterfeiter.
William Deaoe is excellent as the villain. He was an apparently an artist who found forging $20 bills to be more lucrative. The scene where we see the intricacies of his craft is my favorite in the movie. One step of the process involves literal money laundering. I noticed a red fabric item in there and silently chastised him for the pink-tinged bills that surely resulted. But all the machinery and time invested in this enterprise had me wondering if he was putting more into forging each bill than it is worth at face value.
I briefly touched on the action sequences earlier, and those are astounding. Of course, director William Friedkin directed The French Connection, so I can’t say I was surprised. Another memorable vehicle chase scene has the cars weaving between semis that are trying to deliver goods at service bays, and this becomes a moving maze to navigate.
Some of the most exciting chases are on foot, chief among them being John Turturro being pursued by Petersen in a crowded airport. Another foot chase had a moment of a type I haven’t seen before, where Petersen’s partner (John Pankow) and the object of his pursuit have an argument where the pursed asks why he’s being chased and Pankow asks why the guy’s running. I’m just amazed either had the lung capacity to do this while running. I can barely talk while walking.
I feel I need to comment on the production design, as this is another of the most 80’s movies I have seen. As soon as I have found a new winner for this designation, the next one I see tops it. But woe to the feature that tries to out-80’s TL&DL.A. I would say it wins just from its opening credits sequence, the most memorable part of it being extremely orange-saturated footage of the sun setting over the hills with the tops of palm trees in the foreground.
Then there’s the fonts, which are usually like carbon dating for a movie. Two different fonts are used for each half of each actor’s name—fonts which I think have actually been outlawed for use after 1990. And the first name is in fuchsia and the second in lime green. Jesus, movie, why don’t you also put “FRANKIE SAY” before each one? And, while I’m on the subject of fonts, I was mildly irritated by how the date and time appearing as text at the beginning of many scenes is in a different font each time.
One element the movie is well-known for is its soundtrack, which was by Wang Chung. I have nothing against the band. I was previously aware of only a couple of their songs, but I like them. Yet almost every musical selection is in jarring contrast to the scene it accompanies. I couldn’t help but think of Miami Vice, a show I have no fond recollections of, but which had (to the best of my recollection) appropriately somber music for the more downbeat scenes. I couldn’t help but wonder if Tangerine Dream would have been a better fit for the soundtrack here.
There’s more I liked than disliked in To Live and Die in L.A., yet I doubt I will be watching it again. I’m not especially enamored with the 1980’s, but those who are will probably climax repeatedly with all the trappings of the decade on display here. I think some contemporary works I have seen that are highly nostalgic for that decade are less obnoxious than this. As for myself, if I do decide the watch anything from this again, it will likely only be the counterfeiting tutorial.
Dir: William Friedkin
Starring William Petersen, Willem Dafoe, John Pankow, Darlanne Fluegel
Watched on Kino Lorber blu-ray