“To Live and Die in L.A.” is one of the best crime films of the 1980s. Looking at the trailer, you’d be hard-pressed to figure out why the film wasn’t a hit, considering its rapid-fire editing, intense action, and excellent cast, which featured Willem Dafoe, William Peterson, John Turturro, and John Pankow early in their careers. On the surface, it looks like every Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer produced box-office blockbuster from the period.
However, director William Friedkin has an uncanny ability to make things complex, where the alleged “good guys” aren’t all that good. In fact, the good guys do a lot of morally and legally objectionable things … but unlike a “Dirty Harry” film, they pay dearly for their transgressions. In other words, “To Live and Die in L.A.” makes you, the audience member, pay dearly for your transgressions, more specifically, your voyeurism at all the graphic violence and sex that Friedkin piles on. Nobody says movie watching is easy, but if you’re OK with films that explore grey areas, “To Live and Die in L.A.” is an amazing experience. I remember seeing it twice in the theater when I was 15 (you gotta love those morally lackadaisical theater owners back in the day who didn’t give a s–t about enforcing R-ratings) and among friends who had seen it, we all thought it was as cool as “Scarface.” To say this is a movie they don’t make anymore is an understatement. I’m actually surprised it got greenlit back in the 1980s. Today, it might get a nod as a cable movie, but that’s about it.