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William Petersen had to work hard to get the role of Gil Grissom in the original CSI. Grissom was a combination of lab scientist and field agent, two things Petersen embodied in his first two leading roles with the kind of smoldering intensity last seen in the 1970s run of genre defining thrillers. In 1985’s To Live and Die in L.A. Petersen brought the same obsessive-bordering-on-amoral energy he would bring to Michael Mann’s Manhunter a year later. Both films made him an easy pick for the role of Grissom 15 years on but like every great role it takes something from both actor and viewer just as they take something from it.
Richard Chance (Petersen) is a reckless, cavalier Secret Service agent. Soon after foiling an assassination attempt on President Reagan his partner is shot dead while investigating a warehouse owned by counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe). Alongside his new partner John Vukovich (John Pankow) Chance begins the hunt for Masters across the city of Los Angeles. What the by-the-book Vukovich doesn’t know is that Chance is willing to bag Masters no matter the personal, professional or public cost.
To Live and Die in L.A. was one of the few high points of director William Friedkin’s career after the utter failure that was his 1977 film Sorcerer. Although Sorcerer would later be recognised as one of the last masterpieces of the New Hollywood movement it left Friedkin physically, emotionally and mentally exhausted. Just as Francis Ford Coppola came out of the jungle two years later bearing Apocalypse Now as both blessing and burden Friedkin too would emerge from a rainforest a changed man. Friedkin’s career would never reach the critical and commercial highs of his best picture winning The French Connection or 1973’s The Exorcist again but he never wallowed in this reality. Instead, he pushed forward and continued his run of controversy-courting thrillers with 1980’s Cruising and To Live and Die in L.A.
Fascinated by the authenticity and surreality of the novel To Live and Die in L.A. by actual Secret Service agent Gerald Petievich Friedkin chose to adapt it for the paltry budget of $6 million. Friedkin shot quickly and boldly. He cast unknowns in all the leads – Dafoe wouldn’t be a household name until Platoon the next year – and this low risk approach gave him, if not carte blanche, then a certain degree of flexibility within the rigid studio system of Hollywood. It gave him the opportunity to kick the 80’s cop fantasies of Lethal Weapon and Tango & Cash right in the teeth.
There are no good guys in To Live and Die in L.A. Rick Masters is a villain certainly but the men chasing him are no heroes. Just because you’ve got a badge and a gun doesn’t mean you’re a decent man. In fact, it’s more likely that you’re a lean, mean bastard who believes that not only do your badge and gun put you above the law but above life and death too. It’s the kind of role that was fairly common in the 80s but rarely was it played by an actor who really leaned into the dirtbag side of these anti-hero cops. Maybe it was an ego thing and with Petersen being a stage actor just stepping into films he most likely didn’t have one, which made him perfect for playing a scumbag who probably only became a cop for the power. The closest character to Chance in a successful mainstream franchise was probably Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs in the Lethal Weapon films but even then, Riggs was a daredevil because he was suicidal. Chance jumped off bridges because it gave him a rush.
To say Friedkin and his cast and crew took risks while shooting To Live and Die in L.A. would be putting it mildly. For his first leading role Petersen was asked to do a great deal; jump off a bridge, drive against oncoming traffic on the L.A. freeway, full frontal nudity. You name it, he did it. Of course, it wasn’t all lethal stunt driving and semi-legal airport chases. In order to get an understanding of his character Dafoe learned how to print money and Friedkin, in his notorious commitment to realism, hired actual counterfeiters to print the money used in the film, some of which ended up in circulation. It’s less extreme than hiring an arsonist known as “Marvin the Torch” to blow up an enormous tree on the set of Sorcerer but it shows that when it came to details whether big or small Friedkin, and by-proxy, his cast and crew went all in.
All this authenticity adds to the gorgeously sunburnt world of To Live and Die in L.A. With time running out and the vicious, slippery Masters sliding out of their grip, Chance and Vukovich delve deeper into murky moral waters to get their man. After setting up a meet with Masters for one million in counterfeit bills the well-dressed fraudster demands $30,000 as front money which is three times than the Secret Service is authorised to give. On a tip from his informant Ruth (Darlanne Fluegel), with whom Chance has an information-for-sex extortionate relationship, Chance and Vukovich kidnap a man they are told is a diamond fence. Friedkin only said he would only do another car chase if he could beat the car vs train pursuit in The French Connection. The below proved that he could.
Of course, the man they kidnap is no diamond fence but an FBI agent on a sting operation. The agent is shot by his own people and Chance and Vukovich manage to flee the scene without being identified. Despite how far they’ve spiraled from their initially noble if ethically questionable goal of hunting down Masters, Chance wants to keep going while Vukovich is consumed by guilt. I won’t spoil anymore but anyone that knows Friedkin’s filmography and his fascination with bad men doing bad things will have an idea of where To Live and Die in L.A. ends up.
What makes the characters of Friedkin’s neo-noir compelling isn’t the fact that they’re good, bad or indifferent; it’s that desire to see if they can get away with everything they’ve done. The excess and corruption of Reagan-era Amerrica is so pervasive and all-consuming that it defies gravity and trickles upwards instead of downwards. It says a lot that by the end of the film the rot that was so obviously within Masters can be easily seen in the actions and desires of Chance and Vukovich. It’s impossible for these men to abide by the morals the Secret Service and audience expects of them because by the end of the film these morals no longer exist.
To Live and Die in L.A. is an amoral masterpiece. Murtaugh and Riggs or Tango and Cash might act as cavalier as Chance and Vukovich but there’s always a line. It’s the other side of these characters’ compelling nature. Michael Mann shows it best in the likes of Thief, Heat and Miami Vice. Mann’s characters operate on the edges of a line drawn by him so that the audience is always on their side. Friedkin spray paints “FUCK” in all caps over that line. Where directors like Mann or Lethal Weapon’s Richard Donner restore order at the end of their films Friedkin sows more chaos because it reflects the world he sees.