"To Live and Die in L.A." will live briefly and die quickly in L.A., where God hath no wrath like a studio executive with bad grosses. Then again, perhaps it's unfair to hold this overheated and recklessly violent movie to the high standard established by "Starsky and Hutch."
Chance (William Petersen) is a Secret Service agent deeply attached to his "partner," a word that seems to hold a sort of talismanic fascination for him. When said partner is killed, Chance (you'll never believe this) vows revenge. He also gets a new partner, Vukovich (John Pankow), who initially quibbles with some of Chance's methods (such as breaking and entering, kidnaping and extortion), but soon learns that This Is the Way of the Streets.
The object of Chance's blood lust is a counterfeiter, the malevolent Masters (Willem Dafoe), which is where the problem with "To Live and Die in L.A." begins. After all the drug dealers, white slavers, psychopathic ax murderers and unscrupulous pimps, it's hard to get worked up about someone who passes bad paper, even if he did commit the unspeakable and kill someone's partner. Isn't a little nudge to the money supply just what our flagging economy needs?
But this is a minor flaw, easily forgotten in the midst of director William Friedkin's idea of stylization, which mimics "Miami Vice," but creates far less real L.A. atmosphere than "Heartbreakers" or even the lamentable "Into the Night." Since "The French Connection," his idea of directing is turning the knobs -- turn up the volume, turn up the color, turn up the violence. The movie doesn't leave you alone for a second.
Acting -- who needs it? Petersen, who looks like a squirrel set for winter, never gets around his pillowy face -- he's the action hero as mama's boy. And while casting against type is fine, Pankow, smiling nicely in his casual slacks and cashmere sweaters, looks like a deserter from a dentist's convention. Pankow has the high forehead peculiar to babies with water on the brain, which would indicate that he wrote the screenplay; but no, it's Friedkin and Gerald Petievich, who give us "The stars are God's eyes" (poetry) and "You won't have to do the whole nickel" (slang), and have Chance call everyone "amigo" (color).
To Live and Die in L.A., now at area theaters, is rated R and contains nudity, sexual situations, profanity and extreme violence.