If your first introduction to William L. Petersen is through CSI, then you’re missing some real treats with his short-lived film career, which burned brightest about fifteen years before he ever became Gil Grissom and investigated his way onto our small screens and, subsequently, into our hearts. Both of his cinematic outings never got the respect due them until after Petersen reminded us he was still alive, still well, and still acting. His best effort was Manhunter, Michael Mann’s adaptation of the Th…mas Harris novel Red Dragon. While the most recent effort stuck more to the letter of Harris’s novel, Manhunter proved the superior film through Mann’s unmistakable style, and the straight-laced, troubled, and obsessive portrayal of Agent Graham by Petersen.
In To Live and Die in L.A., Petersen again dons a badge, this time as Federal Agent Richard Chance for the U.S. Treasury Department. He’s after a murderous counterfeiter (Willem Dafoe), and he has zero qualms about cracking heads and breaking rules to bring down his adversary. As the film progresses, director William Friedkin throws us quite a few surprises, and yet another breathless car chase. It’s too bad Friedkin’s career is remembered for only two films: The Exorcist and The French Connection. Because his courtroom-serial killer thriller Rampage, and this 1985 action-drama are solid efforts, and much better deserving of success than most anything Hollywood puts out today.
Some viewers may be turned off by the dated styles and feel of the film. Some, perhaps, by Wang Chung’s musical compositions. But give this film a chance, and you will quickly see it’s not just a west coast R-rated Miami Vice. It’s a superior action film driven by character and real stunt work — not pretty-faced stars, who can’t act and loads of ridiculous CGI.
The ending comes at you like a heavyweight prizefighter’s fist to the throat; and the car chase — oh, the car chase — easily earns its place on the top-ten best list along with Friedkin’s own French Connection and Peter Yates’s Bullitt.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack presents the film in a whole new light. Though not perfect, it’s worthy of the format. Dialogue levels are a little low, but not as bad as I’ve heard on other, often newer major releases. Sounds are evenly distributed throughout the room, and the roller-coaster car chase is an orgiastic feast for the ears. French Stereo Surround and Spanish Mono tracks are also available.
Released in the ever-popular 1:85.1 ratio, this anamorphic widescreen presentation offers a brighter picture and much stronger composition than what I’m used to seeing from the film. However, portions are a little soft, and grain shows up more than I would have liked. Some blemishes in the picture were completely avoidable, and that made me think not all the time necessary was taken to restore the film. However, you can certainly tell MGM/UA tried, and the result is also worthy of the format, so long as your tastes don’t cross over into snobbery.
Any complaints I had of technical imperfections quickly vanished when I saw the goodies accompanying the film. Never in a million years would I have thought a studio would spend the time, money, and energy to give this film more than a trailer and a widescreen transfer. But we do get more than just theatrical trailers. We get a deleted scene (in lesser quality), which should have been cleaned up and included in the final cut. However, let’s say a prayer of thanks the studio didn’t win out and force Friedkin to go with their crap-tastic ending. Unlike most alternates, it’s considerably different from the director’s original vision, and would have completely ruined the film’s longevity, reducing it to just another cop picture. There’s an always welcome audio commentary from Friedkin, a photo gallery, and the excellent Counterfeit World: The Making of To Live and Die in L.A. Documentary, which details the film’s appeal and how the studio almost ruined it. Well worth a look.
To Live and Die in L.A. never really garnered respect in its time. It is more of a lost gem, remembered fondly by its fans as it waits impatiently for discovery by a new generation. If you’re like me — a long-time fan — rejoice this film is finally getting respect on DVD. If you’ve never seen it, let me just say I’m jealous… because you’re in for one wild ride.
Special Features List
- Commentary by: director William Friedkin
- Deleted scene and alternate ending featurettes
- “Counterfeit World: The Making of To Live and Die in L.A.” documentary
- Photo gallery