Wednesday, June 7, 2017

To Wang Chung and Die in LA

Ever wonder how well all the gritty movies and TV shows of the 2010s will age? It's worth thinking about, as the popular culture of an era so often defines it in the future, being a present reflection of how we think about ourselves and our situations.

And also because the "gritty" stories of ages past have aged about as well as unpasteurized milk.

To Live and Die in LA is a good example. A gritty neo-noir action thriller by that grittiest of directors, William Friedkin, it is a ludicrous parade of 80s cliches and adolescent characters. Or really caricatures - like Chance, played by the inexplicably respectable William Peterson, a Secret Service agent chasing the counterfeiter who killed his partner. His partner was of course two days from retirement and Chance is a loose cannon who gets results and blah blah blah, we've all been here before.

But Death in LA is something else because of how it cranks these usual cliches up to 11. Chance doesn't just play fast and loose with agency procedure, he also bungee jumps and sky dives and carries on a parasitic relationship with a criminal informant, usually with lots of angry sex. Combined with his dialogue being nothing but tough guy talking points, and Chance achieves the Platonic Ideal of the Reagan era's Manly Man. And that ideal is hilarious to watch when it tries to be serious.

Willem Dafoe is along too as the villain and it's easy to see why he went on to a long Hollywood career while Peterson had to settle for network TV. As Rick Masters, the counterfeiter pursued by Chance, he's both more charismatic and offers a more compelling narrative. The way he strings Chance along demonstrates much more intelligence than the nominal protagonist and his own romantic relationship with a dancer and her girlfriend demonstrates greater depth. You find yourself rooting for him as Chance pursues ever shadier means to bring him down, culminating in robing an undercover FBI agent and a high speed chase down the wrong way of the LA freeway, which is all anyone ever remembers about this movie.

This contrast of a suave villain and a snotty hero is likely intentional. Friedkin has been praised in the past for this film, the argument being that he updated The French Connection for the 1980s - however that just means he tried to do the same morally ambiguous cops and crims drama with double bloodpacks and a Wang Chung soundtrack. The end result is a very dumb film that clearly thinks it is very deep, which just makes it all the dumber.

And this is at least a story grounded in everyday reality. Imagine what The Avengers or Wonder Woman will look like in thirty years, or even the more "mature" superhero shows on Netflix. Popular culture today takes itself just as seriously as William Peterson's bungee-jumping secret agent, and now adds brightly colored tights and Nazis from outer space. It's going to make Miami Vice look like Middlemarch.