Monday 16 June 2008

To Live and Die in LA (1985)

When you're the director of The Exorcist and The French Connection, having something like 'Friedkin's finest hour' plastered on front of one of your DVD's really promises a lot. However this one isn't just an empty promise, even though it's a new DVD and it cost a measly $4.99. This doesn't just have William Friedkin as the director, he wrote the screenplay too, and the cast pits William Petersen against Willem Dafoe, with people like John Turturro and Dean Stockwell in support.

Petersen excels in his debut film lead as Richard Chance, a Secret Service agent who crosses over the line in his quest to catch the man who killed his partner. His partner is Jimmy Hart, three days from retirement, and he's shot dead and left in a dumpster by a counterfeiter by the name of Rick Masters two days before Christmas Eve. Hart isn't just Chance's partner, he's his best friend, and Chance is a hot blooded young adrenaline junkie who knows precisely who did it and wants revenge. This is a long way back for Petersen, a year before Manhunter and with only one credit to his name before this as a bit part bartender in Michael Mann's Thief. Talk about making a name for himself.

Rick Masters is played by Willem Dafoe, early for him too though he was a little more established than Petersen at the time. He hadn't done anything as major as this before but he'd played a few leads in films like The Loveless and Roadhouse 66. He's dynamic here though, as if he'd been playing leads all his life. He's an artist, not just as a counterfeiter but in a more conventional manner too, but he's also a nasty piece of work, completely without scruples. He's also very aware of how to keep himself safe and covered. At one point he burns a huge amount of money, purely because the trail is compromised. At another he orders a hit on one of his own men, because he can't get him out of jail.

What makes this so rivetting is the fact that this very quickly ceases to have anything to do with good guys and bad guys. Masters is the bad guy but he's very good at what he does. Chance is the good guy but he's so far over the line that he becomes indistinguishable from a bad guy. At one point he says outright, 'I can do whatever I want' and we know full well that he believes it. He stoops as low as blackmail, theft and some truly awesomely reckless driving. The car chase here is memorable and powerful, with Chance at one point driving at speed down the wrong side of a freeway causing a mass traffic accident. Friedkin breaks a few rules here, some of which I'm absolutely not going to tell you about. This is one of those movies that is absolutely not afraid to slap you in the face and not feel a moment remorse for it.

No, this isn't The Exorcist, but it's a powerful film nonetheless and it impressed me more than The French Connection, not least because the car chase in that one has gone down in cinematic legend and this one carried far more of a punch.

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