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"To Live and Die in L.A."

If you want a great and gritty thriller, check out this often overlooked gem.

January 01, 2004  |  by George Eliseo

If you like gritty law enforcement thrillers that feature great acting and lots of action, then I recommend that you pop "To Live and Die in L.A." in your DVD player and prepare to be blown away.

"To Live and Die in L.A." is the story of two men: treasury agent Richard Chance played by William L. Petersen of "CSI" fame and vicious criminal Rick Masters played by the underrated but immensely talented Willem Dafoe. Chance and his partner are after elusive counterfeiter Masters when the partner is murdered. And then Chance's job becomes a vendetta and Masters his "white whale."

That plot may sound similar to the plots of a thousand lesser thrillers, but believe me "To Live and Die in L.A." is different. It never flinches from showing just how destructive and dangerous obsession can be. Chance will use any means legal or illegal to have his revenge on Masters and he pays the price. And Masters, a rich artist who counterfeits more for the thrill than the profit, is just as obsessed and even more self-destructive than Chance.

Petersen's performance is first rate and intense. He does a hell of a job as the lead, virtually carrying the movie forward by the power of his personality and charisma. He is supremely believable in this role and his physical energy never falters.

On the other side of the coin, Dafoe seems tailor-made for the character of Masters, who is so decadent that, for him, crime has become just another art. Masters is a bad guy with real depth and Dafoe tears into this role like a homeless guy attacking a steak. His intensity and commitment to the character are one of the fulcrums of the film, and he delivers an awesome performance.

Petersen and Dafoe do most of the heavy lifting in this flick, but the supporting cast is also first rate. "To Live and Die in L.A." benefits from solid performances by John Turturro, John Pankow, Dean Stockwell, and even, in one of her earliest roles, Jane Leaves of the "Frasier" TV show.

All of these performances would go for naught without the vision of a talented storyteller, and director William Friedkin supplies that vision. Friedkin, whose credits include "The French Connection," "The Exorcist," and "Sorcerer," takes this movie to the limits and does not flinch from blood, sex, or violence. The truth of the story and its characters are of primary importance to Friedkin, and it shows.

"To Live and Die in L.A." is by no means a documentary police procedural, but it "was co-written by and based on a novel by former Secret Service agent Gerald Petievich, and it does have some solid grounding in the real world. For example, the plot turns on Chance's difficulties of working within the bureaucracy of a Federal agency and its roadblocks and regulations.

"To Live and Die in L.A." scores an 8.5 on the Blue Review Believability Scale, with 1.0 being totally unbelievable and 10.0 being very believable. For comparison, a Martin Lawrence movie usually rates in the 1.5 range.

So to sum up, we have a novel written by a former Secret Service agent, adapted and directed by one of the masters of the genre, with an impeccably talented cast of actors. Is there any other reason that you need to consider renting and/or owning this film?

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