Release Date(s)1985 (July 18, 2023)
Studio(s)United Artists/MGM (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A-
When William Friedkin made The French Connection in 1971, he ended up revitalizing the entire cop movie genre, and he set the tone for many of the films that followed during the rest of that decade. Of course, he wasn’t necessarily breaking new ground, since he was really just following the template set by French director Yves Boisset the previous year in the brutal thriller The Cop (aka Un condé). Still, Friedkin did introduce new levels of grittiness to North American audiences, and he also raised the stakes for action scenes with a car chase that quickly became the stuff of legends. By the early Eighties, both the genre and Friedkin’s career were in a bit of a rut, but he ended up injecting new life into them one more time with To Live and Die in L.A. Once again, he pushed the boundaries of good taste, this time by taking the superficial gloss of Miami Vice and dragging it into the literal gutter. He also delivered another exceptional car chase that pushed the limits of control, perfectly mirroring the personality of his lead character Richard Chance (William Peterson).
The milieu of To Live and Die in L.A. is significantly different than that of The French Connection, with its law enforcement officers being Secret Service agents in pursuit of counterfeiters instead of policemen fighting drug traffickers, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still very much a cop movie. In fact, despite any of the obvious Eighties trappings such the Wang Chung technopop score, MTV-style editing, or the neon/pastel color scheme, what lies underneath that deceptively glossy surface is a pure Seventies cop thriller that’s entirely consistent with the likes of The French Connection or The Seven-Ups. To Live and Die in L.A. may occasionally look like Miami Vice, but it feels like a modern urban version of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
The Eighties was the era of entertaining buddy cop movies like 48 Hours, Running Scared, and Lethal Weapon, but To Live and Die in L.A. provided an anodyne to that by essentially being the anti-buddy cop movie. It’s a tale about the seductiveness of corruption, and of the inevitably deleterious results of thinking that the ends justify any possible means. Ironically enough, in this world of corrupt judges, shady lawyers, and amoral law enforcement officers, the only person who arguably has any real kind of code of honor is the murderous counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe). Masters is a tortured artist who burns any of his creations once he feels that they’re no longer of any value to him, which includes both his paintings and his counterfeit currency. Yet he makes a point of dealing equitably with his “business” associates, at least up to the point at which he feels that he has been (or will be) double-crossed by them.
William Peterson’s antihero Richard Chance, on the other hand, lives his entire life by obsessive-compulsively pushing the limits in every aspect of both his personal and professional circumstances. When he feels the need to exact revenge on Masters for killing one of his friends, he has no boundaries whatsoever regarding what he’ll do to achieve that goal. He mercilessly uses his ostensible girlfriend Ruth (Darlanne Fluegel) to get to Masters, threatening her with revoking her parole if she doesn’t help him. He also has no compunction whatsoever about dragging his partner John Vukovich (John Pankow) down with him during their pursuit of Masters. Chance systematically pushes Vukovich to the edges of his own moral scruples and then beyond, eventually creating a doppelgänger in the process—as Ruth will discover to her regret during the film’s coda.
Friedkin and novelist/co-screenwriter Gerarld Petievich efficiently establish Chance’s unbridled nature the moment that the opening credits finish, by showing him base jumping off a bridge on a bet with his fellow officers (actually a stunt on a descender rig performed by the late great Dar Robinson, who also appears later in the film as an FBI agent.) He continues that freefall unabated for the rest of the film. Chance also incongruously wears cowboy boots for much of the picture, just in case the visual of him jumping off a bridge was too subtle—although magically, he’s always wearing sneakers whenever he has to chase anyone. Speaking of which, the chases in To Live and Die in L.A., both on foot and by vehicle, aren’t just remarkably well-staged action scenes, but they’re also essential elements that help to define Chance’s character. The chases push the limits of control, just like he does.
None of that would work without William Peterson as Chance, since the entire film would collapse without his Oscar-worthy performance. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Chance is a complete bastard and a truly vile human being. Peterson is well known for his intensity, but that intensity goes hand in hand with a peculiar form of charisma. Gene Hackman kept Popeye Doyle likable via his own raffish charm, but Peterson managed to make the thoroughly unlikable character of Richard Chance oddly compelling despite his inherently repellent nature. That’s a real achievement by any measurement.
Of course, the entirety of To Lie and Die in L.A. is an achievement on every possible level: the acting, stunt work, cinematography, editing, and even the music are all equally vital to the success of the film as a whole. Friedkin warned Wang Chung that he didn’t want a theme song with the title of the film in the lyrics, which was a mandate that they immediately broke with the song that they wrote for the opening sequence. Yet it couldn’t possibly have been more perfect to set the tone for everything that followed. Eighties audiences weren’t necessarily impressed, so To Live and Die in L.A. wasn’t as big of a hit as The French Connection had been, and the Motion Picture Academy ended up ignoring it completely. Still, it made a huge impression on those of us who saw it back in 1985 (especially the unforgettable ending), and it’s proven influential in the years since then. Just like The French Connection, it’s been often imitated, but rarely equaled.
Cinematographer Robby Müller shot To Live and Die in L.A. on 35 mm film using Arriflex BL3 cameras with Zeiss and Cooke spherical lenses, framed at 1.85:1 for its theatrical release. This version uses a 4K scan from the original camera negative, with a new High Dynamic Range grade provided in both Dolby Vision and HDR10. The results look as sharp and as detailed as the lenses and Eighties film stocks will allow (Müller shot everything on Fujicolor 8511 A 125T). The textures of the skin, clothing, and various background details are slightly more refined here than they are in 1080p, and the grain is generally handled well by the encoding (not quite perfectly, as there are a few minor compression artifacts, but those are few and far between). Damage is limited to some fleeting speckles here and there, as well as a faint single-frame scratch or two—one of them shows up during the opening credit sequence at approximately 7:34, visible against the cheek of the subject of a surveillance photograph.
The new HDR grade strengthens the overall contrast range, and it also offers deeper color saturation. Highlights like street lamps and flames burn just a bit hotter, and at the darker end of the spectrum, shadow detail is better resolved—when Masters opens the warehouse door at 16:30, his black shirt and black leather jacket are both nicely distinguishable from the shadowy black background. The rich red and green tones of the opening credits look more intense in HDR, but still in keeping with the overall timing of previous SDR versions. On the other hand, there is some variance with the flesh tones. For the most part, they look perfectly natural, but sometimes they do display a stronger red/orange push than they ever have before. It’s most noticeable in the shots where Masters walks through the streets with Jeff Rice (Steve James), followed by the sequence in the prison yard with Carl Cody (John Turturro). To be fair, since both of those scenes are staged with the sun on the horizon, it does seem to be an intentional interpretation of sunrise/sunset lighting. It’s noticeably different than any of the previous Shout! Factory, Arrow, or MGM Blu-ray masters. (The remastered Blu-ray included here shares the redder flesh tones, albeit with a little less intensity than they have in HDR.) It’s nothing as revisionary as Friedkin’s infamous re-timing of The French Connection for its initial Blu-ray release, but it’s still worth noting.
Audio is offered in English 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. To Live and Die in L.A. was released theatrically in Dolby Stereo, so it was a four-channel surround mix matrix encoded into two. While it’s possible that this particular 2.0 version is a fold-down of the 5.1 remix, rather than being the original Dolby Stereo track (something that Kino has done before with discs like The Silence of the Lambs), there wasn’t that much surround presence in the original mix anyway. The 5.1 version doesn’t appear to offer split surrounds, so it’s likely just a discrete encoding of the original four tracks from the 2.0 Dolby Stereo mix. It’s preferable to the 2.0 because it does offer better channel separation, and the bass also may have been sweetened just a touch—there seems to be a little more depth to bass lines in the musical score, and sound effects like the explosion during the prologue have a bit more rumble to them. Regardless, it’s a fairly typical mid-Eighties Dolby Stereo mix, with the bulk of the sonic energy focused on the front channels, and the surround usage limited to general ambience and reverberations—there aren’t really any directionalized effects passing through them. The dialogue is clean and clear, although some of the ADR does stand out like a sore thumb (such as Robert Downey Sr.’s voice in his first scene discussing the partnership with Vukovich). Of course, that’s inherent to the original sound mix.
Kino Lorber’s 4K Ultra HD release of To Live and Die in L.A. is a two-disc set that includes a Blu-ray with a 1080p copy of the film based on the new 4K master. It also included a Limited Edition slipcover that duplicated the artwork from the insert, but that appears to have already sold out. With one exception, the archival extras are identical to the ones that were included on the 2016 Shout Select Blu-ray from Shout! Factory:
DISC ONE: UHD
- Audio Commentary by William Friedkin
DISC TWO: BD
- Audio Commentary by William Friedkin
- Taking a Chance (HD – 20:42)
- Renaissance Woman in L.A. (HD – 14:56)
- Doctor for a Day (HD – 8:53)
- So in Phase: Scoring To Live and Die in L.A. (HD – 12:44)
- Wrong Way: The Stunts of To Live and Die in L.A. (HD – 35:39)
- Counterfeit World – The Making of To Live and Die in L.A. (Upscaled SD – 29:52)
- Deleted Scene and Alternate Ending with Introductions (Upscaled SD – 13:07)
- Radio Spot (HD – 1:04)
- Theatrical Trailer (HD – 2:08)
The commentary track with William Friedkin was originally recorded for the 2003 MGM Blu-ray release of To Live and Die in L.A. He opens by saying that he’s not going to provide a scene-specific commentary as much as he’s going to give his impressions, thoughts, and feelings about what went into the making of the film. Anyone who’s familiar with Friedkin’s commentaries knows that he’s prone to falling into the trap of narrating what’s happening onscreen, so his approach here is actually a good thing. He gives a broad overview of the inspirations for the film, including his work with Petievich, as well as many practical stories about the production, including working with the actors. Naturally, he also covers the car chase in some detail, as well as other technical information like the then-innovative use of a Louma crane for the opening shot of William Peterson standing at the edge of the bridge. It’s a fascinating commentary track, especially since Friedkin stays focused throughout.
The interviews were all recorded for the 2016 Shout! Factory Blu-ray. Taking a Chance is an interview with Chicago native William Peterson, who describes his journey from playing Stanley Kowalski in a Canadian production of A Streetcar Named Desire to starring in To Live and Die in L.A., thanks in no small part to a kindly recommendation from his friend Gary Sinise. (Peterson returned the favor by recommending his own friend John Pankow for Vukovich.) He says that he learned more lessons working with Friedkin and Michael Mann on just his first two films than he would have if he had spent twenty years in Los Angeles. He offers plenty of stories about the way that the entire production pushed the limits just as much as his character did. Renaissance Woman in L.A. is an interview with actor Debra Feuer, who also offers praise for Friedkin’s unconventional shooting style. People had told her to watch out for him, but he made her feel comfortable on set at all times despite the challenging nature of some of the material that she had to perform. Doctor for a Day is a brief interview with fellow Chicago actor Dwier Brown, who only had a single scene in To Live and Die in L.A., but he went on to play a bigger role in Friedkin’s The Guardian. (Friedkin completely forgot that they had worked together previously.)
So in Phase is an interview with Wang Chung’s Jack Hues and Nick Feldman. To Live and Die in L.A. was their first time working on a feature film, and they say that the experience inspired them to move on to the next phase of their career. They confirm that Friedkin had told them that he didn’t want a song with the words “to live and die in L.A.” in the lyrics, but he loved what they ended up doing with it. Wrong Way is an extended interview with stunt coordinator Buddy Joe Hooker, who talks about the nature of his profession and the way that it’s changed in the modern CGI era. To Live and Die in L.A. was the first of seven films where he worked with Friedkin, and he describes the ways in which he brought the director’s visions to life. Hooker proudly notes that with all due respects to The French Connection and Bullitt, he believes that the car chase in To Live and Die in L.A. was the greatest one ever filmed up to that point in time—he’s perhaps a little too quick to claim that everything that they did was the first time that it had ever been done, but he’s still got a fair argument there. (He also provides a good explanation for why Friedkin wanted the traffic going the wrong way down the wrong lanes of the L.A. freeway system.)
The rest of the extras were originally produced for the 2003 DVD from MGM. Counterfeit World is a making-of featurette that mixes interviews, film clips, and behind-the-scenes footage. Directed by Michael Arick and edited by none other than Cinesavant’s Glenn Erickson, it features interviews with Friedkin, Peterson, Pankow, Dafoe, and the late Darlanne Fluegel, as well as with producer Bud Smith, property master Barry Bedig, Buddy Joe Hooker, and Gerald Petievich. Friedkin explains that he saw the whole story as consisting of counterfeits: counterfeit currency, counterfeit emotions, counterfeit relationships, counterfeit motives, and counterfeit structures at the Secret Service. Speaking of which, there’s a fairly detailed look at the semi-illicit counterfeiting sequence from the film, a scene that caused no lack of problems for the production. There’s also a good examination at the action sequences such as the car chase and the airport foot chase. For anyone unfamiliar with the background of To Live and Die in L.A., this is probably the best place to start.
Finally, the Deleted Scene and Alternate Ending includes a moment between Vukovich and his soon-to-be ex-wife (who was completely eliminated from the final cut), as well as a very different coda that Friedkin shot only to placate the studio—even though he had no intention whatsoever of actually using it. Friedkin, Peterson, Pankow, and Bud Smith are all give their thoughts about why the scenes weren’t used.
There aren’t any new extras, but on the other hand, nearly everything that’s currently available for To Live and Die in L.A. has been included here. The only omission is the Still Gallery that was included on both the Shout! Factory Blu-ray and the Region B Blu-ray from Arrow. The 2017 Carlotta Films Region B Blu-ray Ultra Collector’s Box offered a 160-page book (in French, naturally) and some truly impressive packaging, but the disc-based content was otherwise the same as Kino’s (it also didn’t include the Still Gallery). If you’re one of the lucky souls who owns the Carlotta version, you’ll want to hang onto it for the swag alone. Whether or not it’s worth keeping the other discs for the Still Gallery is a matter of personal preference, but either way, Kino Lorber’s UHD of To Live and Die in L.A. is a mandatory upgrade. It’s the best presentation of the film to date.
- Stephen Bjork