Saturday, March 27, 2010

To Live and Die In L.A.

It is weird how wildly a director's output can vary.  William Friedkin directed The French Connection, The Exorcist, and The Boys In the Band, all very well directed movies, and all classics.  On the other hand, Friedkin also directed Cruising, Jade, and the least exciting hand-to-hand combat movie ever, The Hunted.  While he may have an Oscar for Best Director, William Friedkin is not someone you can trust to make awesome movies every time out.  This time, though, he managed to make a good movie, seemingly against all odds.

The film stars William Petersen (of CSI fame) in his first major film role as a rough-and-tumble loose cannon Secret Service agent.  If this was a pitch meeting, I would say something like "He's gonna bring the bad guys to justice, even if he has to break the law to do it!"  Trite as that sound-byte is, it's a pretty good description of Petersen's character.  Of course, the loose cannon gets paired with the straight-laced partner, played by John Pankow (from Mad About You and Ally McBeal).  Pretty obvious, stereotypical stuff so far.  Since they're the Secret Service, they need criminals to chase.  John Turturro has a small role as a minor player, but the main villain is Willem Dafoe.  Dafoe is running a counterfeit operation and Petersen's original partner died while investigating it.  This puts a bee in Petersen's proverbial bonnet, and so the counterfeiter must be arrested, at all cost.

Obviously, the basic plot isn't anything special.  The script isn't particularly memorable, either, at least in terms of dialogue.  It's not bad, mind you, and Turturro's character in particular has some nice lines, but there are some odd choices.  For some reason, Petersen uses the word "amigo" as a synonym for "wuss," as in, "I'm sorry you feel that way, amigo, but I'm gonna do this my way."  Yeah, this is LA in 1985, but that's just awkward every time it's used.  Ooooh!  Petersen's partner, playing an aging cop about to retire, does say "I'm getting too old for this shit," which predates Lethal Weapon by two years.  So, I guess that's memorable, although always attributed to Danny Glover.

Okay, so the plot and the dialogue aren't too special.  As I watched this, I didn't think the characters or the script were too special, either, but then it got interesting.  The movie is progressing along the well-tread path of most 80s cop movies, but then Petersen's character makes some odd choices.  These choices aren't your usual M. Night Shyamalan, out of nowhere, end-of-the-movie twists.  They make sense for the character; they're just not in the top twenty logical choices sane people would make.  This is where the film differentiates itself.  The characters are well established, but you don't know them well enough to know exactly what they will do.  And yet, the choices they make, and how they react to things, still make sense.

Petersen's character is a classic hard boiled detective; he's smart, a world-class jerk, takes risks, and would rather be right than be legal.  Pankow does a good job as the reluctant partner and both characters develop naturally as the story progresses.  Dafoe (who is surprisingly not hideous in 1985) does a good job as the pragmatic villain.  Sometimes, movies make white collar criminals represent the extremes of the criminal world.  Either they're weak, or they have a hundred tough guys willing to do their evil bidding.  Dafoe is somewhere in the middle and I appreciate that.  It's hard to believe that Petersen, Dafoe and Turturro were still a year away from starring in classics like Manhunter, Platoon, and The Color of Money, respectively, because their performances here show how ready they were for a larger audience.

This movie is rightly described as a noir.  Noir might be my favorite film genre, at least in part because the bad noirs rarely make it onto DVD.  Still, the simple plots, tough guy leads, and character-driven stories are always welcome in my home theater (such a it is).  While this movie has weak points, the good definitely outweighs the bad.  If it could have overcome some cliches and drawn me into the plot sooner, this would be a great film.  Still, this stands as one of the best noir films of the last thirty years.

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