we were so in phase in our dance hall days

To Live and Die in L.A.: 1985: The Motion Picture.

Everything about this movie screams “it’s the 80s!” The jackets. The slang. The edgy selfishness. The gritty crime. The soundtrack. The montages used to set scenes. Put this movie in a time capsule so future generations will know that no, we weren’t kidding about the sunglasses.

Count with me: William Petersen (C.S.I.) plays Richard Chance, an adrenaline junkie Secret Service agent who doesn’t play by the rules but gets results. He’s after master counterfeiter Rick Masters, played by Willem Dafoe, who treats his crime like art and drips weird homoeroticism into every interaction. Chance’s partner, who’s like a father to Chance and who only has three days left until retirement, gets blown away while investigating one of Masters’ hideouts. Now Chance has to take on a naive new partner and push the envelope – perhaps even breaking the law himself – in order to bring Masters to justice.

Wang Chung composed the entire soundtrack.

To Live and Die in L.A. is about counterfeiting. Every crime film needs at least one sequence of process (except Le Samourai, which was all process): the car being hotwired, the assassin setting up in a sniper’s nest, the cocaine being cut and packaged. Here, we get a gorgeously detailed montage of Rick Masters counterfeiting twenty-dollar bills. We see the plates being designed, paint being applied, serial numbers being forged, and miniature brushwork being applied with a master’s eye for detail. Trivia has it that the film’s technical adviser was a convicted counterfeiter himself, and that some of the counterfeit money got into circulation. We watch these bills being manufactured in Masters’ garage, bills just like the ones we have in our wallets. Watching the process of a fake being assembled makes us question what we know to be real.

Money isn’t the only counterfeit commodity in L.A., though. Chance spends a good portion of the movie testing his new partner Vukovich (John Pankow, Mad About You), seeing if he’ll go as far as it takes to bring in Masters: is Vukovich “real” or not? Chance tests himself as well: the first time we see him, he’s about to go BASE-jumping off a bridge with his Secret Service buddies putting bets on him. Masters pays for favors in counterfeit money that he produces, which everyone willingly accepts, knowing it’s close enough to the real thing. And when Masters follows a man in a unitard backstage after a modern dance show and makes out with him, the audience wonders for a second – until the dancer pulls off her wig. (Not to suggest that she was “counterfeiting” as a man, but a guy-on-guy kiss like that would have been very edgy in 1985).

When Chance goes undercover to lure Masters in, there’s some artful ambiguity as to whether or not Masters knows Chance is for real (“love your work”). That question hangs over every interaction in To Live and Die in L.A.: between Chance and Vukovich, or his jailhouse snitch (John Turturro), or the C.I. he’s sleeping with, or Masters himself. Is this other person the genuine article? If not, can I make use of them anyway?

Is it a perfect film? Hardly. There are two gaping plot holes, one never resolved and one resolved only as an afterthought. Many of the key players never get any characterization to speak of. And, as described above, the movie bulges at the seams with corniness. But you could call kabuki theater corny too, if you looked at it with a jaded eye. To Live and Die in L.A. is a kabuki action movie: a stylized depiction of a world too inflexible to actually exist. Were it less serious by one quantum, you couldn’t watch it without guffawing. But only by embracing its attitude with a complete lack of irony can Friedkin pull this off.

And I don’t care what you think: “Dance Hall Days” is a good song.


2 Responses

  1. Let’s not forget an opening sequence that would make Joel Surnow blush!

    My favorite detail was Masters putting the new counterfeit bills in the dryer with poker chips. I couldn’t even guess where to get the right materials and machinery to be a world class paper hanger, but I knew I had a dryer and poker chips, which put it all tantalizingly within reach.

  2. For some reason, my DVD (or rather, the DVD I imported to iTunes) started at the title sequence, rather than with the terrorist attack. I had to watch it again last night to see what you meant.

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