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After his best friend and mentor is brutally slain three days before retirement, hotshot special agent Richard Chance (William Petersen) goes undercover to mount an obsessive revenge against killer counterfeiter Eric Masters (Willem Dafoe). In order to get his man, Chance uses and abuses Ruth (Darlanne Fluegel), a paroled informant in his debt and urges new partner Vukovich (John Pankow) to cross the line by committing a crime that will help fund a maverick operation against Masters. When bullets blaze from both sides of the law, the borders become blurred and innocents are caught in the crossfire.

Review by Keith Lofthouse:
After winning an Oscar for The French Connection (1971) and following with a nomination for The Exorcist (1973), William Friedkin was touted as "the next big thing" in Hollywood directors. Incredibly, most of the dozen features he has helmed since then have been critical or commercial flops and in 1990 his career slipped to its nadir when he made The Guardian, a nonsensical horror movie about a man-eating tree! But Friedkin's wunderkind reputation had already faded to has-been when, without faith or fanfare, this intensely cynical, no good-guys thriller was dumped liked dishwater on the market by an indifferent MGM. Here, at last, Friedkin recaptures some of the verve and vitality that made The French Connection such a buzz.

To Live And Die has a fevered and edgy quality to it, much like Miami Vice. Michael Mann, the creator of that landmark series actually sued for plagiarism...and lost...but Friedkin's hero, tricky Dicky Chance, might well have been influenced by the dubious deeds of Dirty Harry. Like all the mavericks before him, Chance is a lone wolf undercover cop who catches crooks without reference to the rule book: "Let me tell you something, Amigo; I'm gonna bag Masters, and I don't give a shit how I do it." His nemesis is an expert counterfeiter who cold-bloodedly murdered Chance's "best friend" and former partner when the veteran cop tried to make an arrest at the dusty road hangout where Masters was mass-producing $20 bills. Chance goes after him boots and all, dragging Vukovich, his jittery soft-shoe partner into the affray, scratching and screaming all the way.

Once again, the brittle borders between the lawful and lawless are breached when a desperate Chance chances his arm on a daring heist he needs to succeed to help fund his action against Masters. It all goes horribly wrong, of course, and that's where we cut to the car chase that almost emulates the famous French Connection sequence when Popeye Doyle raised palpitations, weaving in and out of peak hour traffic, evading baby carriages and pedestrians while tearing after a train roaring overhead on the tracks. This time, Friedkin turns the Los Angeles road system into a dodgem track in which a convoy of careening and swerving cars charge the wrong way up the teeming freeway, skittling scores of panicked motorists in their wake.

A hair-raising foot chase on the walkways at L.A. International was actually forbidden by authorities, but Friedkin did it anyway. Luminously photographed, the film dazzles with a relentless pace and a pulsating Wang Chung score which complements the action. Friedkin plays with our perceptions by introducing homoerotic elements...Chance, who favours tight blue jeans, buys presents for his "best friend" and does deals with Masters in the men's locker room. He seems to value the loyalty of males above the company of Ruth, an informant who he uses and abuses as a virtual sex slave. Is Masters' girlfriend (subtly, in some shots) a male? There's a stunning moment near the end of the film that defies all the conventions of the genre flick.

Nothing is formulaic in real life and so the film, which pauses for a documentary moment while we watch Masters in the precise process of making funny money, has an authenticity that is beyond 10,000 others. There are surprises in the cast: the unknown Petersen found his niche as a cop and fame in CSI; Pankow played Paul Reiner's brother, Ira, in TV's Mad About You and Jane Leaves (Daphne Moon in Frasier) makes her American debut in a sly, silent bit as the stripper Serena. What isn't surprising is that To Live And Die has earned a dedicated cult following. It is one of those rare films which, even a generation later, improves with repeat viewings. Can you say that about Lethal Weapon? No, I don't think so.

Published January 27, 2005

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(US, 1985)

CAST: William Petersen, Willem Dafoe, John Pankow

DIRECTOR: William Friedkin

SCRIPT: William Friedkin, Gerald Petievich

RUNNING TIME: 116 minutes

PRESENTATION: 1.81:1; languages: 5.1 English, German, French, Italian, Spanish. Subtitles: French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Swedish, Finnish, Norwegian, Portuguese, Greek, Slovanian, Croatian. English and German for the hearing impaired.


DVD DISTRIBUTOR: MGM Home Entertainment

DVD RELEASE: January 19, 2005

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