To Live and Die in L.A. – Special Edition
Film Length: 116 minutes
Aspect Ratio: Anamorphic Widescreen (1.85:1)
Subtitles: English, Spanish, and French
Audio: English – Dolby Digital 5.1; French – Stereo Surround; Spanish - Monaural
The 1980s was quite a decade for action films, and although most people probably associate the 80s and action with Sly Stallone, Jean Claude Van Damme or Arnold Schwarzenegger there are quite a few under-appreciated action flicks from this period that deserve mention. One such film is To Live and Die in L.A. from acclaimed director William Friedkin (The Exorcist and The French Connection), which is a superbly directed, suspenseful crime-noir.
From the opening sequence, To Live and Die in L.A. reels the audience in with its stylish cinematography, which does a wonderful job of bringing the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles to light. William Friedkin wanted to establish a realistic setting, and his depiction of the “real” L.A. is certainly in stark contrast to the usual polished, over-glamorized aspects of the City of Angels usually present in films. Mr. Friedkin wants us to know that Los Angeles can be a grim, violent place, and his frequent utilization of shots containing debris-laden streets and abandoned, graffiti-coated structures provide not-so-subtle visual cues toward that end. Since I have lived in or very near Los Angeles all of my life, I can tell you that the L.A. shown by Friedkin in this film is very real, so he achieves his goal, which adds a lot to the film (in my humble opinion). Sadly, some of the locations used in the film look almost exactly as they did 18 years ago, which is a real shame.
As the film opens, we are introduced Richard Chance (William Peterson), a Secret Service agent with a penchant for living on the edge and employing brutal methods to apprehend the criminals he is tasked with finding. At this time, Chance’s partner Jimmy Hart (Michael Greene), who is mere days from fading into retirement, is killed while tracking down a lead on the notorious counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe, who is his usual cool, creepy self). The loss of his partner sends Agent Chance wild with fury, and he becomes determined to avenge his partner’s demise by any means necessary.
After Hart’s demise, Chance is assigned a new partner, in the form of the stiff, play-by-the-rules Agent John Vukovich (John Pankow). Unfortunately for Vukovich, he soon becomes obsessed with emulating his partner’s rugged style of law enforcement, and his personal life becomes a complete shambles. As the crime element of the story continues to unfold, Agents Chance and Vukovich attempt to set up the purchase of counterfeit currency from Masters, but their agency cannot authorize the funds needed to help them follow through with the sting operation. To ensure their moves forward, the pair crosses over the line of legality to come up with money to broker the deal with Masters.
If this sounds intriguing so far, let me assure you that you will want to see how these events play out. After all, this film is an adaptation of a novel written by a former Secret Service agent that is in the capable hands of William Friedkin, so it should be fairly interesting, no? There is a whole lot more going on in To Live and Die in L.A. than I am willing to reveal, because this is a work that any film fan should experience at least once, and since I cannot safely assume everyone reading this has seen it, I will refrain from outlining the plot any further. Indeed, to reveal anything else would be criminal!
If you need any more reason to give To Live and Die in L.A. a chance, let me tell you that the performances are uniformly excellent. William Friedkin cast the individuals in this film because they could act, not because of their name recognition. Although there are some of the usual cop-movie clichés present, the dialogue is also crisp and edgy, but filled with enough subtle humor to break things up every now and then.
I will not go so far as to say everyone will like this film, because of how stylized it is, but is there any film that is universally beloved? Though it has its share of critics, To Live and Die in L.A., there are also many good reasons why this film has such a devoted following. Simply put, this film is most certainly worth watching at least once, if only for the caliber of the performances, pulse-pounding car chase, and unexpected ending!
So, How Does It Look?
MGM's eagerly-awaited “special edition” DVD release of To Live and Die in L.A. features an anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer. Unfortunately, the overall results fall a bit short of excellence, as the image appears somewhat soft throughout, although this is quite common among films from the 1980s. Further, some of the outdoor sequences, in particular the establishment shots of cityscapes, and locations like train yards or the L.A. harbor appear quite grainy, even to the point of being a minor distraction. This is especially true during the earlier stages of the film. Finally, I thought the image’s overall detail was a little bit lacking, especially in scenes where the characters were a distance from the camera.
However, on a good note, the print is very clean, with only a minimal amount of specks and dirt to muck things up. Color reproduction, particularly in the case flesh tones is also quite good, although a bit on the muted side. Better still, I did not see much evidence of edge enhancement, and black level was deep and dark, so shadow delineation was more than respectable.
Ultimately, this transfer has its high and low points, but I think its qualities outweigh its deficiencies. Would I have liked to see a more full-blown restoration? You bet, but what MGM has offered here is certainly not bad. Take this with a grain of salt because I have only seen this movie on VHS (albeit several times) before now, but in my case To Live and Die in L.A. looked better than I remember it. Still, I could not escape the feeling that MGM could have done a little better, especially considering how much fans of this film care about it.
UPDATE: After considering the comments of others in this thread who have seen the film in theaters, it appears that the image's softness, and "grainy" appearance is more likely to be inherent in the source material. If that is indeed the case, then this transfer is surely much more accurate than I had perceived! The video rating has been changed to reflect this!!!
What Is That Noise?
I am going to let the cat out of the bag right now. The Dolby Digital 5.1 remix for To Live and Die in L.A. available on this special edition release is nothing short of spectacular. Dialogue is crisp, clear, and rooted in the center channel. More importantly, the characters’ speech has a warm, natural sound, and audio problems like sibilance, hissing, and distortion did not rear their ugly heads at all on my system.
Likewise, the musical contributions to this film by Wang Chung sound marvelous, especially in the lower registers of the audio spectrum. I must give credit to all involved in creating this mix, because the front soundstage is spacious and airy, and the rear channels are used frequently to embellish the score or background information, but it all sounds organic.
This mix also makes good use of the LFE channel, which provides a lot of impact during the more tense action sequences in the film (and the music). What most impressed me about the information presented by the subwoofer though, was how composed and clean it was. Check out the scene with the “martyr” at the beginning of the film for a good example of what I am talking about. Room shaking bass that doesn’t degenerate into a muddy, distorted mess. I like it!!!!
All in all, the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, which is what I selected for this review, is a superb re-mix, which sounds a lot more boisterous and “full” than most tracks that make the leap from monaural to multi-channel. Seriously, a couple of times while viewing this DVD, I had to remind myself that this was once a mono soundtrack. In fact, the only complaint I have to register is that one or two times during the film I thought the score was mixed a touch too loud, when compared with the effects and dialogue. Not enough to distract from the experience, mind you, as it only happened once or twice, but just enough of an abnormality to warrant a mention.
Still, without question, this effort by MGM is a marked improvement on a skillfully crafted sound design that already bordered on the sublime. Fans of the film…scratch that….anyone who appreciates an energetic, engrossing aural experience, especially when you take into consideration when the source material was recorded, should really enjoy this (providing you aren’t expecting a Fellowship of the Ring type assault on the ears)! One caveat though. You have to be able to stand Wang Chung!
Feature Length Commentary
Director William Friedkin talks it up on this feature-length commentary, and even begins by pledging that he will avoid talking about what is on-screen to explore his thoughts, feelings, and impressions on the creation of To Live and Die in L.A.. While he does not strictly adhere to his promise, Mr. Friedkin does offer up some rather interesting insight into this grossly under-appreciated film. More importantly, he is an entertaining, energetic, and intelligent person, and the commentary was very easy to listen to and follow.
Among the highlights were:
--- Friedkin revealing that the film was based on a novel, appropriately entitled To Live and Die in L.A., which was written by a former Secret Service agent that worked for President Reagan.
--- A description of how the main title sequence tries to “provide a flavor” of the world the audience is about to witness, but refrain from revealing too much information.
--- Mr. Friedkin discussing how he casts a film in detail, namely avoiding big names, in the hopes of discovering relatively unknown actors with great ability. William Petersen, for example, had never appeared in a film before To Live and Die in L.A..
--- Friedkin discussing the attempts by the U.S. Secret Service to influence some of the film’s content of the film during the post-production process.
There are too many highlights to mention, and this track is a must listen for fans of this film, William Friedkin, or movie-making in general. Why, you ask? Well, unlike most other commentators, William Friedkin gives the listener a good description of the ideas and philosophies behind what ended up on film, and also provides a great amount of detail on the people behind the performances, instead of offering mundane screen-specific commentary.
Further, as I alluded to earlier, Mr. Friedkin’s statements are interesting, insightful, and easy to listen to. What this track really benefits from, though, is the passage of almost two decades, which allows William Friedkin the luxury of reflecting on the film from a much different perspective. As commentaries go, this is a good one. I highly recommend giving it a listen!!!
Counterfeit World: The Making Of To Live And Die In L.A.
This 29-minute documentary provides a nice retrospective on the making of To Live and Die in L.A. through behind-the-scenes footage and new interviews with William Friedkin, William Peterson, and John Pankow, among others. Friedkin shoulders the bulk of the load here, talking about the counterfeit nature of the relationships in the film, how the variety of crime tackled by the Secret Service drew him to the project, and the lengths everyone went to in order to create a film that was true to the surreal world that Secret Service Agents operate in.
This is a well-edited, compelling featurette also contains a great deal of information about the process of bringing the car chase scene to life (over an exhausting 6 weeks!), and how integral sound editing practices are making such a scene work. Most interestingly to me, however, was Friedkin’s discussion of the film’s rather unorthodox ending. He is especially candid about how the studio begged him to alter this sequence, presumably so the film would make more money at the box office.
All in all, this documentary is a wonderfully entertaining, insightful look at the creation of an influential and exciting film. Even though quite a few years have passed since To Live and Die in L.A. was made, it appears that all who participated in this featurette enjoyed working on it immensely. The half hour I spent learning a little more about this film went by very quickly, which, to me, is the mark of a good featurette. Check it out!!!
Deleted Scene and Alternate Ending Featurette
The deleted scene featurette, which runs for 4-minutes, consists of a rather emotional scene between Agent Vukovich and his spouse (played by Tracy Swope). Before the scene plays, William Friedkin comments on it, and he really seems to regret having cut it from the film. Although it does not degrade the emotional impact of this scene, I would be remiss to not point out that the visual quality of the scene is very poor. Still, it is nice to be able to see it, and I too agree that it should have been left in.
The Alternate ending featurette, which runs for nine minutes, features Director William Friedkin talking disgustedly about the pressure the studio put on him to film an alternate ending, so the film could “make more money”. After his commentary, the alternate ending is shown, but I really do not want to spoil its contents (if you don’t already know). Suffice it to say that it is a very interesting sequence, and according to one of my friends who is really into this film, rumors of this ending have been bandied about for a long time.
Although I like this film quite a bit, I have never considered myself a hardcore fan, so I was not as aware of its existence. In any case, now that I have examined it, I must concur with Mr. Friedkin, in that this ending is sub-par. In fact, one of the commentators on this featurette states that Friedkin screened the film once with this ending, and said “This is s*&t, take it out!” As an extra, however, the inclusion of this rumored alternate ending is a nice touch, and should make fans of the film very happy!
Photo Gallery and Trailers
A photo gallery, featuring about 60 black and white production photos is offered, as well as the theatrical and teaser trailers for To Live and Die in L.A.. In addition, MGM has included trailers for the following previously released DVDs: Dark Blue, Fargo, and La Femme Nikita.
The Score Card
The Last Word
To Live and Die in L.A. is a horribly underrated film, featuring memorable performances, stylish direction, and one of the best car chases ever put on film. Sure, some may be put off by the Friedkin’s style, and some of the dialogue is clichéd, but the vast majority of the characters’ lines are crisp, and there is also a good deal of humor sprinkled throughout the film. The real pay-off, though, lies in the realistic, imaginative use of dilapidated locations, and the riveting action sequences (although these are few), including the aforementioned chase scene, which unfolds on congested Los Angeles freeways, with the characters speeding through oncoming traffic.
As for the presentation, MGM’s transfer cannot be called reference quality, but it is serviceable at the very least, and the stimulating Dolby Digital multi-channel re-mix really delivers. In addition, the bonus features, dominated by the insightful commentary of Director William Friedkin are more than worthwhile. On the whole, with the exception of the transfer, which is not all that bad, this is a very fine treatment of To Live and Die in L.A. by MGM. If you like crime-oriented action thrillers, you could do a whole lot worse than to give this disc a spin! It has been a little while since I bestowed this rating, but this special edition of To Live and Die in L.A. is worthy of it. Highly recommended!!!!
December 2nd, 2003