JUST WHEN we were beginning to think of "vice" as an addiction to Armani, along comes "To Live and Die in L.A.," a no-nonsense police drama with off-the-rack partners William L. Petersen and John Pankow down and dirty in ready-to-wear.

Nobody's going to ask these guys, "Is that from the fall collection?" That's for sure.

Petersen and Pankow are standard-issue action heroes, a couple of T-men in hot pursuit of a counterfeiter who's killed Petersen's old partner. (We knew he was a dead man the minute Petersen gave him that retirement fishing pole.)

Pankow plays a naive young agent assigned to Petersen, a hot dog who breaks all the rules to catch the killer (Willem Dafoe), figuring there are none when your best friend is blown away and stuffed into a dumpster.

After a while, of course, you can't tell the good guys from the bad guys, because dirty rubs off. The premise is not a new one from "French Connection" director William Friedkin, who uses familiar techniques and themes in this gritty film.

Friedkin, whose chase scenes are legendary, goes for his longest and loudest ever here, setting the partners on a collision course with the FBI in their submarine-gray sedan. Headed up the ramp onto the L.A. Freeway, they turn rush hour into a demolition derby, leaving a Japanese junkyard behind as they plunge into the concrete bed of the L.A. river and off into the smoggy sunset.

Nonstop, yes. But the trouble is the actors, accustomed to stage, never catch fire on screen. They're more like Simon and Garfunkel than Starsky and Hutch.

Dafoe, mostly cast in box-office bombs in the past, makes up for the duo, though, with his unflinching and complex villainy. Besides, he's the one with the designer wardrobe and the Don Johnson hair.

Friedkin cowrote the serviceable screenplay with Gerald Petievich, a real-life Secret Service agent whose novel is the basis for the story. It's written for an ensemble cast, which includes Debra Feuer as a glitzy moll; John Turturro, brilliant as a bagman; Dean Stockwell, interesting as an amoral attorney; and Darlanne Fluegel, fearful as an ex-con forced to act as Petersen's informant and lover to stay out on parole.

This sexually explicit, violent scenario never quite coalesces, but it's a superbly scored, good-looking film, if never quite so artful or well-acted as "Miami Vice."

TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. (R) -- Area theaters.