Realism might have been the big thing to emerge from cinema in the 1970s but it didn’t die out in the 1980s. Neither did crazy car chases. And it goes without saying that cops pursuing criminals is a storyline that will never go out of style. That’s where 1985’s To Live and Die in L.A. enters with an absorbing story and a cast of crazy characters that have depth and are multifaceted. Get ready for a hell of a ride.
Just days from retirement and on the verge of busting a counterfeiter that he’s anxiously been chasing, a Secret Service officer is killed in the line of duty by the criminal he’s pursuing. His partner is Richard Chance (portrayed by William Petersen), a young and eager guy who wants to avenge the death and put the counterfeiter away in prison — no matter what it takes. With a new partner (played by John Pankow) on board for the ride, the two do pretty much everything and anything to track down the counterfeiter, Rick Masters (portrayed smartly by Willem Dafoe). It’s a wild goose chase that sees them consciously willing to break all the rules. And the laws.
Much like the characters in To Live and Die in L.A., it can be difficult to know who and what to trust. Back stories and characters seem to pop up randomly with little or no explanation. While a typical action movie makes it clear — federal officers are the good guys and criminals are the bad guys — it doesn’t feel so clear cut in To Live and Die in L.A. Director William Friedkin walks the line and keeps you guessing until the very, very last minute as to what will happen and who will win. What’s more, the filmmaker doesn’t really seem to care how the twists will make the viewer feel. Dafoe’s Masters can feel infinitely more likable than Petersen’s Chance at times. It blends ’70s realism with action. If nothing else, To Live and Die in L.A. is certainly not boring.