There are a few underrated actors out there whose success in Hollywood (or distinct lack thereof) seems utterly perplexing to me. Did they accept the wrong roles and turn down all the good ones? Did they have bad agents? Did they go off the rails with drugs? Or try an untimely shift into professional boxing? Most likely they probably irritated one too many studio mogul and got blacklisted, 'cause that's the kind of who-you-know coven that Hollywood is. Of late, we have seen the massive comeback of Mickey Rourke, perhaps the king of underrated actors (and now, thankfully, the comeback king too). But plenty more have fallen by the wayside and struggled to come back, either to the big or the small screen.
William Petersen has been front-running a little-known TV series called CSI, which just happens to be one of the most popular shows in the world. I cannot think of many series which have lasted this many seasons and now, in its tenth, Petersen has finally left, taking his superbly quirky modern-day Sherlock Holmes forensic detective Gil Grissom with him. Arguably CSI will never be the same again now that he has left, and it is a testament to his sheer presence and importance in the crime drama that his replacement came in the form of none other than Morpheus himself, Lawrence Fishburne. Petersen will likely always be remembered by many as the quiet, eccentric and introverted Grissom, whose hero is the perfect antidote to his gun-toting, wisecracking cliché of a counterpart in Miami (Horatio Caine, as played by another massively underrated actor, David Caruso).
However, his career certainly did not start out in CSI. It also did not, much to popular belief, peak with CSI in terms of his capabilities as an actor. Nope, this intriguing character actor showed his true mettle over two decades ago in a couple of superior thrillers made during the post-French Connection era. Manhunter, made in 1987, was the first interpretation of a Thomas Harris/Hannibal Lecktor novel (later to be remade into the lacklustre Red Dragon), and - in my opinion - still the best, thanks mostly to Petersen's lead character (a character who would later give rise to Grissom - check out the first season of CSI to see the similarities). But back in 1985 - in what was only his second acting role, and already his first lead role - Petersen had already given us the outstanding thriller To Live and Die in LA. And for such an underrated actor, it is no wonder that the film has become something of a cult classic over the years.
When fearless Secret Service Agent Richard Chance loses his partner at the hands of master counterfeiter Rick Masters, he resolves to catch Masters, whatever the cost. Taking on a new partner, he manages to get close to his prey, posing as a couple of out-of-town dealers who are interested in purchasing some newly minted notes, but when the bosses refuse to authorise the front money to secure the deal, Chance has to decided whether to go all the way and become a criminal just to catch this master criminal.
Whilst ostensibly packed full of clichéd staples of the genre - veteran cop is killed a few days' prior to his retirement, prompting his partner to go after the murderer, against his superiors' orders, and with a doubting freshman partner tagging along - the movie is remarkably fresh and surprising in narrative - right down to the shock final act. Chance is anything but your stereotypical 'cop' hero, instead a nihilistic, thrill-seeking, borderline suicidal menace to all those around him. He is a hair's breadth away from the totally corrupt lead in Training Day (a powerhouse performance by Denzel Washington), treating his girlfriend/informant like a whore, having a blatant disregard for his superiors, and putting not only his own career and very life on the line, but also that of his new partner. About the only person this character ever cared about dies within the first few minutes of the film, and after that his only remaining purpose in life is to catch the people who did it - whatever the cost. In making such an almost-impossible-to-like character the lead in a movie, Director and co-writer William Friedkin managed to shift the perceptions of his audience, shock them and shake up their expectations from what is, on the face of it, a simple crime thriller.
Marrying a complicated but not convoluted plot about catching a master criminal, with an insightful character study into what makes a man (his actions more so than his beliefs), the story also successfully plays out not one but many character arcs. From the psychotic Masters to the borderline psychotic Chance; his novice partner (who may get dragged down during Chance's suicidal plummet or, worse still, become just like him) to his beleaguered 'girlfriend', we get a resolution in each and every case. And almost all of them will come as a surprise, even to those extremely familiar with trademark outcomes within the genre. Unflinchingly dark and cynical, the movie is not afraid of portraying such a stark look at corruption and deception on both sides of the law, nor afraid of being populated by amoral characters who could potentially alienate audience members.
In much the same way as Washington would go on to capture every bit of your attention with his shocking take on corruption in Training Day (and, it should be noted, take home an Oscar for it), William Petersen does an outstanding job in what was, for all intents and purposes, his first movie. Utterly convincing, clearly a very natural and charismatic actor right from the get-go (several of the key scenes were improvised by him) he infuses this damaged character with a compelling, dangerously magnetic aura, making you wonder why you are so drawn to somebody who is so clearly self-destructive.
Whilst not out-and-out bad, he is far from a nice guy, and it was a performance that got swept under the carpet when it came to critical acclaim - a shame when you consider that Gene Hackman's critically acclaimed Popeye character from the French Connection films was merely one facet of Chance's multi-layered personality. It is easy to understand from this performance what Michael Mann saw in Petersen, giving the still-novice actor the chance to take the lead in yet another superior movie - Manhunter - just one year later. What I still cannot understand, however, is how he managed to disappear off the face of the earth so soon, and for so long, after that.
Supporting Petersen are myriad character actors, who all play their parts perfectly and round out the integral cast within this rich film - some familiar faces who would continue to appear on our screens to this day, and others who would disappear never to be seen again. Taking the latter first, we have John Pankow, who plays Chance's new partner. Whilst I can see why he is not the kind of actor who could have gone on to make Big Screen Blockbusters, his performance here is initially quite convincing as the naive, mistake-prone almost-accomplice, who basically goes along for the ride, unable to fully resist the death-wish antics of his relentless partner. Unfortunately he just doesn't 'look' right in the role - for starters he looks older than Petersen's Chance - and whilst he just about pulls off the initial partner-in-over-his-head bit, his later appropriations of Chance's dress and mannerisms seem totally unbelievable. He is the weakest link and had his role gone to a slightly better-suited actor, it would have made all the difference to the bleak epilogue.
Then there is Darlanne Fluegel, another 'disappearee', who perfectly captures the essence of a trapped animal, boxed in on all sides by forces greater than her. As manipulative as she is manipulated, she works well in her scenes opposite Petersen as his put-upon informer and mistreated 'girlfriend', only drifting into the realms of irritating when she's mumbling things like 'the stars are the eyes of God'. And finally Debra Feuer would suffer a similar fate in terms of Hollywood success, strangely captivating as the aloof, submissive plaything for Masters who - as with Fluegel's character - may just behave like a trapped animal if perpetually treated as such.
In terms of familiar faces, we get Al from Quantum Leap (or, more recently, Battlestar Gallactica), Dean Stockwell, at his slick Blue Velvet-era best playing a slimy lawyer playing all of the sides against the middle. John 'Big Lebowski' Turturro has an extended cameo as one of Master's money-runners and then there is Masters himself - played with almost camp aplomb by the disturbingly gargoyle-like Willem Dafoe. Dafoe has always taken risks and pushed boundaries with his roles, but this was one of his very first, the skilled actor later going on to play Jesus in Scorsese's excellent (and much misinterpreted) The Last Temptation of Christ, a prophetic super-soldier in Oliver Stone's Platoon and a reformed addict and drug dealer in Paul Schrader's Light Sleeper. Here his character is a reptilian amoral psychotic artistic counterfeiter, and somehow Dafoe simply becomes the man - in much the same way that Petersen becomes the obsessive Agent pursuing him. These actors are on top form.
Aside from a fresh and dark story with plenty of truly unexpected twists, some great anti-stereotype characters, and some outstanding performances, the film is strikingly directed with an artistic panache that - whilst clearly a dated trademark of the 80s - is also remarkably suitable for the content. Stark images of dancer's faces made-up like masks, flash images of gunshots foreboding later climactic scenes, and similarly used 'recall' images during the epilogue all come together to give it some serious style.
A zesty '80s soundtrack (think GTA: Vice City) and enticing percussion-dominated main theme, and a number of action set-pieces (the opening protection assignment, some foot chases and shootouts) make this a notable entry within the genre - one of those movies that transcends the crime thriller labelling it is often given, and puts it in one of those 'top movies of all time' lists. To top it all off we have officially one of the best car chases ever captured on film, up there with the French Connection and Bullitt, as Chance and his new partner flee from an increasing number of armed pursuers along a reservoir and against the traffic on the freeway. Back before green-screen became a mainstay, this was clearly a lesson in how to do great car chase stunts. It's a heady mix of the best that a fairly hit-and-miss decade had to offer.
To Live and Die In LA, much like its star William Petersen, deserved much more acclaim upon its release, and remains one of those under-praised, oft-unnoticed top-notch crime thrillers which warrants a place in anybody and everybody's collection. Highly recommended.
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