Playing with archetypes can be dangerous territory. Archetypes in stories have the same strength that stereotypes do in real life. We cling to them because they make things simple and easy to understand. Mess with that, and you may be asking for trouble. Just look at John Carpenter's fantastic cult film Big Trouble in Little China. One of the main reasons that movie is a cult film and not a mainstream success is that the man who by all rights should be the hero, Kurt Russell's Jack Burton, is actually a consummate screw-up. This so upset the studios that they had Carpenter put a scene in at the beginning where Victor Wong straight up tells the audience that Russell is the hero, even though he barely does anything heroic throughout the whole film, which is, essentially, the joke of the movie.
I say all this because To Live and Die in L.A. is kind of like Big Trouble in Little China, except without the overt jokes. The film appears to be a by-the-numbers tough cop flick, even going so far as to have a cop a few days away from retirement say, as grizzled as possible, "I'm getting too old for this shit," and then killing him off two scenes later. You feel like you've seen this movie before. Except you haven't. Not at all.
That's largely thanks to Richard Chance, the movie's protagonist, played by William Peterson. He's the cop gone rogue who plays by his own rules that we've seen so many times before, except writer/director William Friedkin makes him all too human. He screws up, and he screws up big, and it comes with a heavy cost. He believes he must take the chances he does (note the character's last name, even!) because the system has been corrupted, and yet he's far more corrupt than anything within the system he despises.
Chance, an agent in the Secret Service, is trying to track down Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe), an artist who moonlights as an extraordinary counterfeiter, largely out of revenge for Masters killing his old partner. When his superiors refuse to grant him $30,000 to make an entrapment deal with Masters, Chance ropes his new partner John Vukovich (John Pankow) into a robbery to try and steal the necessary money to make the deal on their own. Things proceed poorly.
Chance, seen early in the movie base-jumping off a bridge, loves both the thrill of danger, but also the feeling of being entirely in control. He takes the chances he does because he cannot conceive of a world in which he is not the master of all he perceives. Even when a prisoner escapes his custody and the heist gets horribly botched, he still firmly believes he can come out on top using the wits that got him so meagerly far.
He also controls the people around him, preying on their weaknesses to develop an intense yet false sense of camaraderie and allegiance. His girlfriend is also one of his informants, a delicate ex-con out on parole. When she asks Chance what he would do if she stopped informing for him, he tells her casually that he'd have her parole revoked and send her back to jail. He strong-arms his new partner into helping him on his heist by shaming him and playing off his insecurities over upholding the legacy of his cop family.
The movie is a confused, tricky piece of work. On Friedkin's rather interesting commentary, he discusses how he was initially drawn to the project, based on Gerald Petievich's novel, by the idea of the strange duality of the Secret Service, men who one day would be protecting the President of the United States, and then the next day would be chasing down a counterfeit fifty dollar bill. However, it's telling that Friedkin got so wrapped up in the counterfeiting storyline that he completely forgot the whole presidential protection angle, and had to go back and film a new opening just to get his original point across.
At times that confusion makes the movie all the more interesting. Friedkin, wanting to top the car chase he did in The French Connection, comes up with an absolutely stunning chase on the L.A. freeway that is so gripping and almost surreal that the audience gets swept away with Chance and his courting of extremes and danger. Later, however, the chase is put in a completely different light once we learn, at the same time Chance does, exactly who he was running from and why. The movie wants us to both cheer Chance and also be reviled by him. It's a tricky act that, when it works, feels brilliant, but when it doesn't feels like Friedkin trying to have his cake and eat it, too.
It's hard to talk about the movie without talking about its stunner of an ending. Even now, 25 years after the movie first came out, it feels shocking and dangerous, yet once you see it it seems like the only ending any movie like this could have. It shows a true dedication to hewing to the essence of the story, as the original script had a much different ending, but while shooting Friedkin decided it had to be changed. The studio was horrified at the new ending, and demanded Friedkin do a re-shoot. He acquiesced, and the ending he shot for the studio, included as a supplement on the disc, is hilariously terrible, and Friedkin rightfully stuck by his guns and got his ending put back on the film.
There are a couple other fun extras, including a deleted scene that actually should have ended up in the film and a solid making-of featurette. Friedkin also provides a pretty neat commentary, alternating between anecdotes about filming (largely about the car chase and the "consultant" they brought on to help with the forging scenes), technical information that never becomes dry or dull and insights into what drew him to the project. His discussion about wanting to make a movie of a world where everything, including people and relationships, was counterfeit helps to illuminate the movie's strange tone and quirks.
It's also interesting to hear him discuss working with the actors, as they were all pretty much unknowns at the time. Peterson and Dafoe were both stage actors, and it's fun to see their staginess still hanging around a bit on screen. Peterson was from the tough, bad boys club of the Chicago theater scene, and swaggers so hard at some points in the film you think he might dislocate a hip. Dafoe was heavy into his work with New York's Wooster Group, and his sinuous, androgynous bad guy makes great use of his experimental theater work.
The technical specs are interesting, as the package includes the 2003 DVD release which contains all the special features, and then a new Blu-ray print. It does show off the power of Blu-ray well, as you can compare the DVD quality, which Friedkin praises highly in the commentary as a wonderful restoration, to the Blu-ray quality, which even at single layer 25 GB still looks better than the highly crafted DVD transfer. The audio is DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio, so it sounds great, especially during that killer car chase. Plus, it makes that crazy Wang Chung soundtrack all the more rockin'.