William L. Petersen had for a long while been underappreciated, scoring too few starring roles before he achieved success as Grisham in the television series C.S.I. When he did score a major role, as in Manhunt (1987) or To Live & Die in L.A. (1985), he was observably great.
In To Live & Die, Willem Dafoe plays counterfeiter Rick Masters. Part of the film is a how-to primer for making phony money using an A. B. Dick offset printer.
For the first half of the film everything goes down way too predictably. When the counterfeiter tosses printing scraps in a garbage bin, you just know that's going to be evidence, & he should've known it too; & sure enough, in scarcely any time at all there's a treasury agent (Michael Greene) in the dumpster.
But hey, that's the agent who a couple scenes earlier mentioned he was retiring in two days. And in ultra-cliche thrillers, "retiring in two days" is the code-phrase for "this character will be dead in two minutes."
For quite a while the storyline is much too transparent, but then things get dodgy. Eventually events become sufficiently random as to no longer be predictable.
To some extent To Live & Die in L.A. deconstructs the basic ingredients of this type of thriller in order to turn characters inside-out. But at the same time it relies on those very commercial cliches, & is kind of schizophrenic in its uncertainty whether it wants to be a by-the-numbers antihero thriller, or arrange the numbers backwards.
Richie Chance (Petersen) wants to take down the counterfeiter not in the course of his job as a Secret Service treasury agent, but to avenge his slain partner.
He gets a new partner, Vukovitch (John Pankow), who doesn't like to bend the rules, but is pretty much forced to do so by Richie who is less & less distinguishable from the thugs he's after.
In a fight fire with fire set-up, Richie decides they'll have to rob a courier of $50,000 that was going to be used to obtain stolen jewels, & use the stolen money to set up a counterfeit money buy.
Turns out, though, that the courier they robbed, & who got accidentally shot dead, was an FBI agent.
The film derails momentarily with a tedious abjectly cliche car chase as our corrupt treasury agents flee the F.B.I. The chase even takes them through the L.A. river canal seen in just oh so many similar films. But fans of this sort of padding will enjoy it, I guess; otherwise car chases wouldn't be de rigeur for thrillers.
After the purposeless chase runs its course, the story starts up again, & our two guys posing as money launderers arrange a meeting to buy a shitload of fake money from Rick.
There are enough twists in the end for three or four films, though it's more busy than clever.
Petersen's character Richie has come across as an older James Dean rebel type, with major faggot appeal. He has survived this long more by luck than wit, & his luck is about to run out.
His less daring partner is scared enough to wet his pants, but the penultimate fillip will be that Vukovitch has learned the wrong lessons & has finally turned into another Richie Chance.
There's one more twist, too, involving a rather jesting allusion to lesbianism that always gets a giggle & a nudge-nudge from the lads.
By no means a great film, even so, it attempts to recapture something of an "L.A. noir" & is much more serious than most action thrillers. And Petersen is definitely worth watching perform.
Some of the support cast turn in tremendous performances too, especially Dean Stockwell as the cigar-chomping exceedingly corrupt attorney; Darlanne Fleuge as the stoolie hooker with a heart of fear; & John Turturro as the courier who even after he's been sold down the river won't turn state's witness.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl