To Live and Die in L.A.

Reviewed By Brian McKay
Posted 09/01/02 06:56:05

"The best way to beat L.A. rush hour traffic ever filmed!"
5 stars (Awesome)

God bless the 80's. We laugh at them now, but they gave us some some great action movies and some equally great music (we could have done without all of the skinny ties, leg warmers, and big hair, though). From William Friedkin, the director of THE FRENCH CONNECTION, we get a sylish piece of 80's action-noir, with an amazing original soundtrack by forgotten one-hit wonders of the decade, Wang Chung.

From the opening scene, I was hooked. The sun slowly rises on a smog-choked downtown Los Angeles, backlighting its skyscrapers with a deepening blood-red sky as the hypnotic title track kicks in. This is not the glamorous L.A. that Hollywood usually shows us. Friedkin's vision of L.A. is grim and gritty, a wasteland of vacant trash-strewn lots, grungy industrial areas, and freeway underpasses.

William Peterson is Richard Chance, a Treasury agent who likes living dangerously and has no qualms about being as ruthless as the criminals he pursues. His partner and best friend is only days away from retirement, and after uttering the stock cop-movie line "I'm getting too old for this shit", he goes off on his own to track down a lead on counterfeiter and all-around bad guy Rick Masters (played excellently by Willem Dafoe). Hmmm, let's see - days away from retirement, and goes off on his own . . . is there any way this character could not be killed off in the first fifteen minutes?

Needless to say, this puts Chance into hell-bent revenge mode. He's going to do anything and everything to avenge his partner's death, with or without the law on his side. The only problem is he's forced to work with a new partner, the by-the-book and overwhelmed John Vukovich (John Pankow). Though he tries to play tough guy, Vukovich is clearly out of his element as Chance drags him deeper into the shady gray area between highly unethical and outright illegal.

Meanwhile, Masters is printing up lots of play dough and trying to off one of his former associates, Carl Cody (John Tuturro), a sleazy mule who was busted by Chance while holding some of Masters' funny money, and is about to turn state's evidence.

There are a number of cop-movie cliches and some lines of dialogue that are fairly cringe-inducing. Once in a while the script seems to have been lifted from some 1940's detective story (who the hell says "The whole caper is blown" anymore - even in the 80's?). And why the hell does Chance keep calling everyone "amigo"? Is he Mexican? Are they in Mexico? Is he adressing people from Mexico? And what is up with that really flamboyant scarf, jeans, and mirrored sunglasses ensemble he likes to bandy about in the earlier scenes? Okay, so Peterson is a bit over the top in this one, but he's still cool. And while some dialogue comes off stilted, most of the lines are fairly crisp and often amusing. Like the scene where Vukovich chases down a credit card thief, who shouts:
"Why are you chasing me, man?"
"Why you running?"
"Because you're chasing me!"

And then there's the scene where Chance slaps down a request for more money from his informant Bianca Torres, after having just slept with her (played by the hot Debra Feuer, by the way, who sadly dropped off the Hollywood radar in the early nineties):
"I need more money. I've got people leaning on me."
"Uncle Sam don't give a shit about your problems. You want bread? Then go fuck a baker."

But where the film really pays off is in the fantastically seedy locales, the ultra-slick music-video montages featuring the hypnotic tunes of Wang Chung (including the classic theme song), infrequent but excellent action sequences, and the best chase scenes since The French Connection on L.A. freeways against traffic. If you liked the 14 minute freeway chase in Matrix Reloaded, and wonder where at least part of the inspiration for it came from, then check this shit out!

And while you're at it, go check out that Wang Chung original soundtrack. It really is good. I picked it up from the bargain bin of a record store a few years back. Best $3.99 I ever spent. Look, there's even a handy little link to buy it right near the top of this review. You have no excuse left!

If you grew up watching MIAMI VICE, you gotta check this shit out. While it is certainly not the most original cop movie ever, its slick style and dreamlike music-video qualities hide a multitude of sins.

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