Foreigners who know the United States only from its movies must have some funny ideas about us. Take, for instance, some vacation-minded European catching a double-bill of two films that opened on the same day here: To Live and Die in L.A. and Death Wish 3. Any travel plans would be canceled in a second; the Middle East would look like a festive getaway compared to the United States portrayed in these movies.
Both films create worlds that are unrelentingly hellish – a by-now-familiar urban wasteland where punks commit whatever heinous acts strike their fancy, and decent folks don’t have a chance. There’s no other reality in these films; no goodness or tenderness, just squalor, hopelessness, and filth.
Of course, there is one “hero”: Charles Bronson, the gun-toting vigilante in Death Wish 3 (directed by Michael Winner, who also made the first two installments). As usual, the character’s philosophy is succinctly expressed: “With cockroaches, you’ve got to kill them all; otherwise, what’s the point?” (He’s speaking metaphorically, you understand; the cockroaches are intended to represent the denizens of a certain section of New York City.)
When Bronson returns to his old haunts in response to a friend’s call for help, he’s picked up by a cop (Ed Lauter) who recognizes Bronson from the good old days of vigilante justice. Lauter releases Bronson, admitting that Bronson can probably do more good than the police, hamstrung as they are by all those technicalities about fair trials and citizens’ rights.
This means Bronson can go directly into the streets and zotz as many scumbags as he can. He does this for 90 minutes or so, then the movie is over.
To Live and Die in L.A. is a more ambitious effort, and certainly a more interesting one It’s a cop movie with a Miami Vice/MTV feel to it, with lots of neat photography, jumpy editing, and mucho violence.
The plot – about some Secret Service agents (William L. Petersen, John Pankow) going after a ruthless counterfeiter (Willem Dafoe) – is basic shoot-’em-up material. What gives the film its distinctiveness is the moral wasteland it creates. There’s nothing good or remotely noble here, not even a Bronsonesque thirst for vengeance (one of the cops is avowedly looking to avenge the murder of his old partner, but it soon becomes clear he’s in it as much for the kicks).
These agents break the law with casual indifference, they abuse their informers, and eventually they manage to get a fellow agent killed. The movie doesn’t outwardly condone this behavior, but the fast-paced lifestyle does appear attractive, thanks to the snazzy depiction of it (special credit to Robby Muller’s photography and Wang Chung’s music).
Director William Friedkin has created this kind of hellish universe before, in The French Connection, The Exorcist, Sorcerer, and Cruising. He gives you his own black view of Los Angeles, which in his hands looks a lot like the urban jungle of Death Wish 3.
Friedkin’s vision is certainly unpleasant, although the movie does grab you now and then. He has a couple of surprises up his sleeve, and there’s a spectacular chase that attempts to outdo the set-piece from The French Connection. But be warned: It’s the sort of film that, despite the superficial treats to be had along the way, ultimately leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
First published in The Herald, November 6, 1985
I know what you’re thinking: Why was I worried about foreigners, when the effect of a movie like Death Wish 3 was obviously more profound on Americans? The U.S. is going through something right now that was surely helped, at least a little, by the attractions of the 80s vigilante picture. Anyway, I realize the Friedkin film has lots of fans, and maybe I would be one of them if I sat down and watched it again. Death Wish 3‘s cast include Marina Sirtis and Alex Winter, both of whom have talked about how much they disliked the experience.