To Live and Die in L.A. is most likely the best Michael Mann film that Mann didn’t actually direct. Yes, the film certainly shows some trademarks of it’s legendary director, William Friedkin, but there’s a general ambience and sense of style that feels cut from Mann’s early-80’s cloth; call it a fascinating amalgam of two of cinema’s best tough-guy directors. William Petersen got one of his absolute best roles as a volatile Secret Service agent hot on the trail of counterfeiter Willem Dafoe, who has figured out a way to mass produce nearly flawless fake cash. Petersen is also deadest on avenging the death of his partner, who is dispatched in the first act via shotgun blast to the face, a moment of cinematic violence that once seen cannot be unseen. The plot is somewhat standard but never uninvolving, mixing the expected cops and robbers tropes into a sprawling, Los Angeles-set narrative that makes tremendous use of the city and all its potentially dangerous locales. Robby Müller’s stylish cinematography portrayed Los Angeles and its surrounding areas as lethal, neon-scorched hell-pits, while also evoking Alan Pakula’s seminal 70’s thriller The Parallax View during the frightening opening sequence.
Most of the action takes place during the day, whch separates this film from Mann’s mostly nocturnal urban playgrounds of violence and mayhem. The film’s main action set-piece, featuring a car chase that’s set against traffic along the 405, is phenomenally well-staged, feeling dangerous at every turn, and done with zero CGI, making it even more impressive. John Frankenheimer would riff on the against-traffic car-chase in his masterful thriller Ronin. Friedkin based his screenplay on Gerald Petievich’s novel; before becoming an author, Petievich was a member of the U.S. Secret Service. The famous Wayne Chung score only underscores this film’s essential 80’s-ness. Features a boisterous supporting performance from John Pankow. Real life counterfeiters were brought on as technical advisors, thus ensuring legitimacy during the various sequences showing the manufacturing of the phony greenbacks. Two endings were shot, with Friedkin ultimately going with the downer finale, which certainly has helped to keep this film a cult favorite after a solid theatrical run in the fall movie season of 1985.