While I would disagree with Mark Kermode, as he argues in his BFI book on the horror classic, that The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) is the greatest film ever made, a strong case can be made that To Live and Die in LA is Friedkin’s masterpiece. This relentless thriller about two US Treasury agents, Richard Chance (William Petersen) and John Vukovich (John Pankow), running an increasingly rogue undercover operation against Rick Masters (William Dafoe), a nihilistic painter turned counterfeiter, would make a fascinating double bill with Zabriskie Point (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1970). However, where Antonioni perversely dumped most of Pink Floyd’s original score, Friedkin gave the British pop group, Wang Chung, near free reign and the results chime perfectly with the gritty neon tinted vision of a city enslaved by Reagan era greed.
The title track lays down the unsparing tone in the pre-credit opening. A presidential motorcade moves through the sun scorched streets towards a Beverly Hills hotel. Cut to night time, President Reagan can be heard giving a speech advocating tax cuts to a well-heeled banquet room crowd as his security team warily moves through the hotel. Chance, as part of the detail, is playing cards with other agents before resuming a shift guarding the leader of the free world. Suddenly he notices a room service waiter move a bit too furtively down a corridor and commences chase. Chance and the waiter, who turns out to be a suicide bomber, end up on the hotel roof in a tense stand-off. The terrorist is thwarted by Jim Hart, Chance’s boss (Michael Greene), a weary veteran nearing retirement, who sighs, “I’m getting too old for this shit.” Cut to the main credits impeccably storyboarded by Pablo Ferro – a montage of police surveillance photos and documentary style vignettes of LA’s slums and industrial spaces, edited to a hypnotic Wang Chung percussion track.
With its fatalistic lyrics (“I wonder why we waste our lives here / When we could run away to paradise / But I am held in some invisible vice”), the title track is not so much a love theme as a requiem for the casualty rate that ensues in the film. The song makes clear that Los Angeles in the mid-‘80s is a place whose glamour is out of reach for most inhabitants, but addictive all the same. Masters, the painter, is a composite of Robert Longo, Julian Schnabel, Eric Salle and others whose work was overvalued in the decade. While the two agents’ desire to avenge the death of a colleague and mentor soon leads to methods indistinguishable from the criminals they are pursuing. Greeted with dismissive reviews and middling box office on release, To Live and Die in LA is – again, like Zabriskie Point – a film now all too prescient. Wang Chung’s music make the film’s resonance with the grotesque Malthusian tenor of Trump’s America all the more haunting, but mercifully tinged with a hint of grace and absolution.