Instead, it was a small gem because Friedkin dared canvassing a main character that was a complete asshole cop, who robbed a bag man criminal carrying a briefcase filled with cash, so that he could buy counterfeit cash from another complete asshole criminal. In the end, the famed director—helming a slice of sordid celluloid that would not leave much of a cinematic mark because of its harsh characterizations—portrayed a world that had evil sneering down upon a dull and hazy L.A. like the sunny suburban shithole it really is.
Oh, the other complete asshole is played by Willem Dafoe, and if one thought he was angelic in Oliver Stone’s excellent Vietnam document, Platoon, or the weird Martin Scorsese film starring Dafoe as the alleged messiah (don’t send me any nasty notes. You have no proof other than some random frat party beer chalice, or an image on an old Twinkie wrapper, or whatever the fuck that cloth manufactured 13 centuries past the time when George Clinton’s Mothership beamed the Holy Man back up to Alpha Centuri) in the What If He Was a Man? film known as The Last Temptation of Christ, or The Messiah takes a Detour into New York and Gathers Disciples with Brooklyn Dialects, which also came out in the 80s, then he erased that with his demonic performance here.
It’s hard to talk about To Live and Die in L.A. without discussing THAT car chase. The sequence is absolutely wrong-headed, insane, chaotic, suicidal, and yet, it is so realistic and chilling that when Petersen’s partner—the equally fine John Pankow in a great role that is subtle, complex, and the essence of slow-flame-burning—reacts, he does so in a way that is beyond realistic—he seems to be utterly losing his mind on film, shouting, yelping, pounding seats, and generally going as apeshit as the audience while Petersen—as he is throughout this magnetic performance—drives towards his inevitable fate. Friedkin, ultimately, helped along by Wang Chung’s stunning soundtrack, helped create a world inside a world where the devil is the only real character that lives above the law.