Going into William Friedkin's To Live and Die in L.A. I felt an odd sense of familiarity with the title. The sense that I knew exactly what I was getting into or perhaps had even seen it in the distant past, however, I didn't remember a single thing. I found myself questioning it throughout, but ultimately came to the conclusion that this was the first time, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
To Live and Die in L.A. is exactly what you'd expect of a film about cops in the 1980s, especially in Los Angeles. It throws the low budget style and cheesiness at you from the start, with admittedly very dated but good use of fake blood and over the top deaths caused by a rainfall of bullets from guns that seemingly never need to be reloaded; oh, and I can't forget to mention that everyone has terrible accuracy unless the plot calls for it!
To Live and Die in L.A. starts off with a montage of street degeneracy, and a constant exchange of what's blatantly fake money for real money (sounds a bit familiar right now doesn't it?), and that's all you need to know at the start. This montage prepares you for an obvious introduction to the film's antagonist: Willem Dafoe. Not the real Willem Dafoe, but the character he plays, Eric Masters. His sketchy big dealings across town have caused a few eyes, resulting in our protagonist's partner going for a little exploring at the worst time and place, leading to his death.
The result is our protagonist: William Petersen. Not the real William Petersen, but the character he plays, Richard Chance. This young cop is full of dangerous ways and doesn't really play by the rules. And with the event of his partner's death, he's set on bringing justice by any means necessary on those responsible. Now, what you'd expect from this is an all-guns-firing-at-all-times action film with over the top scenes, but we're given a delicate story of recklessness that takes the viewer to new levels of "Oh no."
Now this is no film that has you on the edge of your seat, but it's one that really brings out your anxiety as things heighten. And twists ensue that you really don't expect. It's done excellently and has you rooting for the protagonist even despite his dangerous and clearly terrible decisions. It's done in a manner that requires no exposition or time wasting that extends the runtime of the film, which is incredibly refreshing in today's market, though certainly nothing out of the ordinary for a film of its time where the focus was simply telling a story, coming and going.
With that, I did in fact want more. The film had me searching the director's library and for films featuring the protagonist's actor. His performance drove the film forward and it was surprising to see that his career didn't boom as a result of his ability to be so likeable on screen. He pulls off the angry, careless cop aesthetic perfectly. And that's without even mentioning the performance of a money-thirsty villain by Willem Dafoe in his youth.
For those two alone, I highly recommend this film. And if you're into films from the 1980s and the now-worn buddy cop style, you'll love this.