Wednesday, August 7, 2013

To Live Makes Death the Ultimate Shocker

Note: For what it's worth, this post contains spoilers for a nearly thirty-year-old film.

I wonder just how scandalous William Friedkin's 1985 crime drama To Live and Die in L.A. must have seemed to its original audience. It's a testimony to the film's edginess that parts of it are still pretty potent even by today's increasingly libertine standards. Brutal bludgeonings. Graphic gunshot wounds. Tons of gratuitous nudity. (Who in the world thought that anyone would want to see that much of main antagonist Willem Dafoe's bum?) But while I can understand how that content would've made mid-eighties jaws drop, what shocked me was something else entirely: Friedkin kills off the viewpoint character with a dozen minutes of runtime remaining.

Secret Service agent Richard Chance has a score to settle. When his partner gets murdered during a routine investigation three days short of his retirement, Chance vows to bring down the killer no matter what. Browbeating judges, robbing criminals, sexually manipulating a desperate parolee -- he'll do whatever it takes to get results. And Chance will need every weapon in his morally questionable arsenal to bring down the man who pulled the trigger. Rick Masters is a talented southern California artist who spends as much time printing funny money as he does painting portraits. You don't survive long in the counterfeiting business without taking proper precautions, and to get to Masters, Chance and his new straight-as-an-arrow partner Vukovich will have to bend the law until it breaks.

I've already revealed the big spoiler in To Live and Die in L.A.: Chance bites it rather messily near the film's climax. It's not unheard of to kill off a protagonist, but it is strange to have one die with a significant amount of the plot remaining. The only other movie I've seen try it was the abysmally bad Jeepers Creepers 2. (Hey, don't look at me like that. I was reviewing it for work. Do you think I'd watch such dreck volitionally?) Whereas Jeepers Creepers 2 fell apart after that dubious plot decision, To Live and Die in L.A. holds together -- but only just. Friedkin bridges the gap by having righteous Vukovich quickly slide into Chance's anarchistic ways. In one sense, he becomes Chance, adopting not only his ideology but also his dress and demeanor. It works on a thematic level, but as far as the essence of the characters themselves? Not so much. The movie acts like the spawn of a thriller and a modern noir, sharing the latter's spareness and the formers emphasis on action. This means that Friedkin had to limit character development to a snippet of dialogue here and an isolated visual metaphor there. Such asides can't hope to convincingly depict the radical internal shift the film demands in its closing chapter. Entertaining as To Live and Die in L.A. might be, it falls short with its final conceit.

(Picture: CC 2010 by Chris_Lott)


pattinase (abbott) said...

Some pretty shocking movies came in the seventies and eighties. In some respects, more shocking than today.

Loren Eaton said...

I remember one director saying that, in the eighties, the emphasis was on creating "adult" entertainment(meaning "for adults," not "pornographic"). The studios thought there was a market niche there, so they ramped up the sex and violence. Today, PG-13 is king, so that rating has largely become a soft R-rating.