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To Live And Die In L.A.

In the hierarchy of great movie chase sequences, the recent landmarksinclude the chases under the Brooklyn elevated tracks in "The French Connection" down the hills of San Francisco in "Bullitt" and throughthe Paris Metro in "Diva." Those chases were not only thrilling intheir own right, but they also reflected the essence of the citieswhere they took place. Now comes William Friedkin, director of "TheFrench Connection," with a new movie that contains another chase thatbelongs on that short list. The movie is set in Los Angeles, and so, ofcourse, the chase centers on the freeway system."To Live and Die in L. A." is a law-enforcement movie, sort of. 

It's about Secret Service agents who are on the trail of acounterfeiter who has eluded the law for years, and who flaunts hissuccess. At one point, when undercover agents are negotiating a dealwith the counterfeiter in his expensive health club, he boasts, "I'vebeen coming to this gym three times a week for five years. I'm an easyguy to find. People know they can trust me." Meanwhile, he's asking fora down payment on a sale of bogus bills, and the down payment is largerthan the Secret Service can authorize. So Richard Chance (William L.Petersen), the hot- dog special agent who's the hero of the movie, setsup a dangerous plan to steal the advance money from another crook anduse it to buy the bogus paper and bust the counterfeiter.Neat. The whole plot is neat, revolving around a few centralemotions - friendship, loyalty, arrogance, anger. By the time the greatchase sequence arrives, it isn't just a novelty that's tacked onto amovie where it doesn't fit. It's part of the plot. The Secret Serviceagents bungle their crime, the cops come in pursuit, and the chaseunfolds in a long, dazzling ballet of timing, speed and imagination. 

The great chases are rarely just chases. They involve some kind ofadditional element - an unexpected vehicle, an unusual challenge, astrange setting. The car-train chase in "The French Connection" was amasterstroke. In "Diva," the courier rode his motor scooter into onesubway station and out another, bouncing up and down the stairs. Orthink of John Ford's sustained stagecoachchase in "Stagecoach," or the way Buster Keaton orchestrated "The General" (1927) so that trains chased each other through a railway system.The masterstroke in "To Live and Die in L. A." is that the chaseisn't just on a freeway. It goes the wrong way down the freeway. Idon't know how Friedkin choreographed this scene, and I don't want toknow. It probably took a lot of money and a lot of drivers. All I knowis that there are high-angle shots of the chase during which you canlook a long way ahead and see hundreds of cars across four lanes, allheading for the escape car, which is aimed at them, full speed. It isan amazing sequence. 

The rest of the movie is also first-rate. The direction is thekey. Friedkin has made some good movies ("The French Connection," "The Exorcist," "Sorcerer") and some bad ones ("Cruising," "Deal of the Century"). This is his comeback, showing the depth and skill of the early pictures. The central performanceis by William L. Petersen, a Chicago stage actor who comes across astough, wiry and smart. He has some of the qualities of a Steve McQueen,with more complexity. Another strong performance in the movie is byWillem Dafoe as the counterfeiter, cool and professional as hediscusses the realities of his business.I like movies that teach me about something, movies that haveresearched their subject and contain a lot of information, casuallycontained in between the big dramatic scenes. 

"To Live and Die in L.A." seems to know a lot about counterfeiting and also about theinterior policies of the Secret Service. The film isn't just about copsand robbers, but about two systems of doing business, and how one ofthe systems finds a way to change itself in order to defeat the other. 

That's interesting. So is the chase.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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Film Credits

To Live and Die in L.A. movie poster

To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)

Rated R

110 minutes

Cast

William L. Petersen as Richard Chance

Willem Dafoe as Eric Masters

John Pankow as John Vukovich

Debra Feuer as Bianca Torres

John Turturro as Carl Cody

Darlanne Fluegel as Ruth Lanier

Dean Stockwell as Bob Grimes

Robert Downey as Thomas Bateman

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