TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. (1985)
2 FILMS: ONE'S A CRIME DRAMA, THE OTHER'S JUST A CRIME
Philadelphia Daily News (PA) - November 5, 1985
Author: JOE BALTAKE, Daily News Movie Reviewer
"To Live and Die in L.A." A crime drama starring William C. Petersen, Willem Dafoe and John Pankow. Directed by William Friedkin from a screenplay by Gerald Petievich and Friedkin. Based on a novel by Petievich. Photographed by Robby Muller. Edited by Bud Smith. Music by Wang Chung. Running time: 105 minutes. An MGM/U.A. release.
"Death Wish 3." A revenge drama starring Charles Bronson. Directed by Michael Winner from a screenplay by Michael Edmonds. Based on characters created for a novel by Brian Garfield. Edited by Michael Kagan. Music by Jimmy Page. Running time: 93 minutes. A Cannon release.
Both films are in area theaters.
First the bad news, then the bad news. Some weeks are like that.
For starters, gun-toting, bullet-pumping he-men are back on the screen, in not one but two new movies, and one of them has the forboding title of "Death Wish 3." I spent most of Friday seeing both films, in which cars crash, blow up and fly through the air, people are garroted, bludgeoned, spiked and terminated and in which the aggressors always enjoy the best sex imaginable. (There's a message here, I guess.)
I've read that there's a correlation between violent movies and anti-social behavior, and now I believe it: I came away from these movies in the worst mood possible, and I'm really not up to writing this review, so if you interrupt me, you're dead meat!
Now, with that said, let me make it clear that not all the news is bad. William Friedkin's "To Live and Die in L.A.," despite its graphic violence and overall inhumanity, is a damned good little movie, an intelligent, melancholy policier that's as fatalistic and as tinged with mood (and moodiness) as the very best foreign crime dramas have been.
Coupling it with Michael Winner's absurd "Death Wish 3" probably isn't totally fair, but the fact is, both movies are doing and saying the same things and also leave the same awful aftertaste. There's also the unfortunate coincidence of their being released at the same time.
The only real difference is that Friedkin's film is as stylish and as grown up as Winner's film is poorly made and infantile: "Death Wish 3" was made for the yahoos and no one else; "To Live and Die in L.A." was made for yahoos and those few perceptive moviegoers who can see beyond the carnage, see it for what it is (movie-fantasized reality) and savor the tight, tough, unsentimental story at the movie's core. (It really is unfortunate that Friedkin's film wasn't made in a foreign language and presented with subtitles.)
Let's dispense with "Death Wish 3" first. It falls somewhere between the original 1974 film that, despite its wretched vigilante stance, had genuine substance and dramatic charge (it made sense) and the sequel of two years ago, which is about as unwatchable as any film can get.
The new film is so deliriously unreal that it's almost funny - almost. In this go-round, Charles Bronson's Paul Kersey is back in New York, only this time the great city looks like a bombed-out war victim. It is overrun with punks who trample over old people and, naturally, frustrate the police. Kersey is recruited to splatter the creeps with his Wildey .475 Magnum pistol.
"It makes a real mess," Bronson explains, something that he's been doing as an actor on screen for nearly three decades now.
His film is actually a ripoff of a deservedly obscure Stephen Verona movie called "Boardwalk," which cast Lee Stranberg and Ruth Gordon (and others) as old Jews being terrorized by punks. These films are romantic in that they seriously convey the dubious notion that anyone who fights back, wins.
Not so in "To Live and Die in L.A.," a stark drama that has no delusions about right versus might. Directed by Friedkin in an unrelenting visceral style (a la "Miami Vice") from a Gerald Petievich novel, this movie is about L.A. counterfeiters and the patrol-car tensions between two plainclothes agents who are at odds, with each other and their superiors, about how to handle the case.
Richard Chance (William L. Petersen), your token hothead, sexed-up type, has a personal vendetta: His former partner was slaughtered by the film's flashy villain (Willem Dafoe). Chance's new partner (John Pankow) is a nervous, by-the-books type whom we suspect will mess things up in this cat- and-mouse game.
But "To Live and Die in L.A." has as many surprises (one of which is genuinely shocking) as it has dead bodies. This is an intense, vital and honorable movie. It doesn't glorify Chance's tactics the way another movie would (in fact, a more complacent agent solves the case), and it doesn't pretend to have the answers.
It is a contemporary horror story of justice miscarried, a harrowing experience, that has no surcease and not even the catharsis of promised reforms. And in William L. Petersen, it has the most sexually charged actor to come along in a long time. Don Johnson and his "Miami Vice" are kid's stuff compared with Petersen and "To Live and Die in L.A."
Parental guide: Both films are rated R for their violence and language.