Monday, June 29, 2009

Appreciative Review: Tequila Sunrise

Tequila_sunrise_(1988)Image by le0pard13 via Flickr

Every summer I make it a point to watch one of my favorite movies, Robert Towne's Tequila Sunrise. And, this year was no exception. Released in 1988, it is the second directed feature from the writer of another great (L.A.) film, Chinatown. It is a wonderfully layered neo noir film set in the distinct South Bay area of Los Angeles. Although, I often ponder if I hadn't attended L.A. Harbor College right after high school (and spent a formative portion of my student life in and around that curvature of beach area), would I care as much as I do for this film? Here, I'll let one of the well fleshed out characters from the movie answer that:
Probably not, but who knows what he's really up to? I mean you're snitch isn't going to tell us... ~ Lt. Nick Frescia

tequila_sunriseImage by le0pard13 via Flickr

Set in the Reagan-era 80's, with a soundtrack to match (like many I can't help but associate Crowded House's Recurring Dream with this movie), Tequila Sunrise is a brooding tale of deceit and betrayal, but primarily it is one of friendships. Some have criticized this film for being confusing (and its production history may have something to do with that). But at its core, it's a solid character-based melodrama that is laced with ambiguity and some ever-moving boundaries. Just about everyone in this film is not quite what you'd first assume. If you enjoy a film that needs close watching, with intricate character motives--regardless of clear moral distinctions--this one is for you.

For T.S., Mel Gibson plays Dale (Mac) McKussic, a retired South Bay cocaine smuggler of legendary proportions. Interestingly, Gibson was not the first choice in the antihero role--it was initially envisioned for the likes of Jeff Bridges or Harrison Ford. Maybe, Bridges could have pulled it off, but I have my doubts that Ford would have been as successful here as Gibson in this character. To me, he was unafraid to convey the darker aspects of this part (see 1999's Payback)--something Ford would likely have pushed to tone down. And I doubt that other big name actors would have undertook a role like this one (and so on the other side of the law). Here, the character wants to stay out of the drug business (one that he's been so good at) for a more normal life. But, as he puts it:
And I may be paranoid, but then again nobody wants me to quit.
Not so much opposing him, but being the flip side of a morally dubious coin, is Lt. Nick Frescia (who heads up L.A. Sheriff's drug enforcement unit). Most crime fiction (book or film) centered in Los Angeles, makes use of the well-known LAPD. To his credit, Towne lets the location set the story's law enforcement entity--and it provides an absorbing contrast with the lesser known Sheriffs. The vastly underrated Kurt Russell plays this character as a smart, slick operator capable of breaking the law when it helps him enforce it. Again, Kurt was not the primary choice for this role (now can you imagine Alec Baldwin or Nick Nolte as this?) Even then Laker coach Pat Riley was considered for the role (which Kurt pays homage). Like Mel, Russell is quite capable of playing the ambiguous lead (see the later Dark Blue for further proof). He's equally adept with his facial expressions (his wordless observation of a DEA interrogation is simply perfect). Personally, I think of Nick's character in the Captain Renault league.
Jo Ann: That's an awful lot of money.
Mac: Uh, fifteen million dollars.
Jo Ann: That is an awful lot of money.
Mac: Yeah, well. Money makes people predictable, at least. They'll never be reliable.

LOS ANGELES - FEBRUARY 11:  Writer Robert Town...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

To really begin to understand these two characters, southern Cal-native (and renowned screenwriter) Robert Towne sprinkles his marvelous, sharp dialogue throughout the movie in building their history and the plot-line--a portion of those interchanges I've chosen to drop in this post. Their friendship is long, and probably has always been rivalrous. And, it is the key point of the tale. The writer/director has a keen eye to the strangest of relationships: those life-long friendships that arise, and are tempered, in the furnace known as high school. I don't know anyone who claims H.S. was ever a smooth and simple part of their lives. And it provides a great springboard for the story, one that the screenwriter effectively writes quite well. The character's friendship has continued despite their paths veering to opposing sides of the law.
Nick: You got one chance, buddy, turn yourself in.
Mac: What for?
Nick: What for?!?
Mac: Yeah, what for? I told you I had an accounting problem in the restaurant. I've been holding on to money for someone, and he's here to pick it up. I mean it's his money.
Nick: I wanna get this straight. You'd kill me over drug money?
Mac: Well... it's a lot of money.
The primary impetus for the trouble to come is from the outside. For Nick, it's the unwelcome intervention by DEA agent Hal Maguire, done to slimy perfection by an extraordinary character actor who is greatly missed since his passing. J.T. Walsh built a career playing either the villain (Breakdown) or the almost invisible but key support (A Few Good Men). In this role, he's in top form as the smarmy fed (and not the sharpest knife in the drawer). He forces Nick to try and nail his friend (who he likes) to do his job for him (who he hates) so as to keep his friend out of federal custody.
Jo Ann: What is it, Nick? You need some chapstick or lip gloss or something cause your lips keep getting stuck on your teeth. Or, is that your idea of a smile?
Nick: (smiling and embarrassed) That's my idea of a smile. Ah, man. You are... you're tough.
For Mac, coincidentally, it's the complication of his friend/drug overlord "Carlos" coming to town to clear up "an accounting problem." Without giving too much away, the other greatly missed actor who co-stars, the late Raul Julia, gets to have loads of fun playing the mysterious Mexican cop Javier Escalante (brought in by Maguire to help arrest this crime lord). That, and Mac's yearning for restaurateur Jo Ann Vallenari (the gorgeous Michelle Pheiffer plays her for all her smart & sexy toughness). All of this is complicated since Nick immediately sees her as someone who can help him with his case against Mac. However, the lieutenant is just not prepared for his feelings and the resulting consequences for both he and his friend.

Tequila Sunrise is nothing if not a primer on the twists and turns of friendships, and the moral implications of choice. This movie plays better to those who watch it carefully. But if you stick with it, by the end it is so worth it, IMO. The additional visual treat of this movie is the great cinematography on display by the famed Conrad Hall. One standout scene is the sunset summit scene between Mac and Nick on the beachside with a spectacular sunset going on in the background. If you listen to the excellent commentary track by producer Thom Mount (who gives some great insight on the film's production) the impromptu locale of that sequence, in particular, is quite remarkable in its result.

sunset summit

The 1997 DVD is now very long in the tooth and is certainly in need of re-issue, remastering, and new extras (hopefully this time, with input from its writer/director) on how it evolved to its final cut. Also, be on the watch for a small but wonderful cameo by the legendary western director (and Robert Towne favorite), Budd Boetticher, in the role of Judge Nizetitch. It's a superb tribute for a director that deserves greater recognition. Now, let's end this post with a particularly killer piece of noirish dialogue that serves as a great thumbnail for this underrated film (it's one that hits home with me):
Carlos: You son of bitch! How could you do this? Friendship is the only choice in life you can make that's yours! You can't choose your family! Goddamn it, I've had to face that! And no man should be judged for whatever direction his dick goes! That's like blaming a compass for pointing north, for Chrissake! Friendship is all we have. We chose each other. How could you fuck it up? How could you make us look so bad?
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  1. Oh, man, Michael, this is a fabulous post about one hell of a movie. Yeah, it doesn't get the recognition it deserves.

  2. Since I've mentioned it often enough in some posts, I figured it was time I wrote something directly about it (especially after my annual viewing). Thanks, Corey.

  3. I second Corey's comment. This is one of my all-time favs...and I didn't grow up near the curve of beach! ;) It does make me sad that Mel Gibson took the direction he did in life...he was so awesome in this. I think that's being overshadowed by his bizarre behaviours now. And Kurt's wonderful!! He cracked me up in TANGO & CASH!

    Thanks Michael! I think it's time for me to watch this one again, too!

  4. I'm heading for netflix right now! Tequila Sunrise, you can drink it, listen to the song, or watch the movie, what else will it do, put out the cat.
    Kurt's fine, Michelle finer, can tolerate Mel, egomaniac that he is, on and off the screen. Time to watch Payback again, everyone stole the show, Kris, James, and Lucy.

  5. Jen: Tango & Cash is a guilty pleasure of mine, too. The byplay between Stallone and Russell's characters is so funny. I'm going to queue it up and watch it again--this time with my son (shhh... don't tell my wife).

    Kurt's comedic skills are undervalued. I don't know if you've seen it, but he's also very funny in Used Cars. He also does the commentary track with Zemeckis on that disc, and it's hysterical.

    H n L: yes, Mel is... Mel. I like his movies, but... With regards to Payback, did you ever see the later released Director's Cut of it? It's more of what writer/director Brian Helgeland originally envisioned (before the studio came in and changed things). If you look at this link is lists the changes between the theatrical and director's cut.

    Payback was a quasi-remake of the '67 noir classic, Point Blank, with the great Lee Marvin. And both were based on Donald Westlake's The Hunter novel. I've never read it (but should). Perhaps Corey (who has read many of DW's work) can comment on the source material with re: to the films.

    Thanks to all for your comments.

  6. I haven't seen the director's cut of Payback, so that version may negate anything I say.

    The Film Journal has an interesting article here contrasting the two films, but stops short of comparing them to the source material. And for my money, neither film measures up to the book (not unusual). Some of that is just a result of differing media. The problem, for me, with the films v the book, is that the filmmakers just didn't get Parker's character. Or else that Parker wasn't good script for them, and they wanted to turn him into either a existential anti-hero or an action figure seeking justice. Parker isn't about those things at all. He's about the money. Just wants his money. And will go through hell, dragging everyone with him if necessary, to get it. Westlake defines Parker in the books over and over as a ruthless, remorseless thief. That 'one man against a machine' the Film Journal spouts may be true of POINT BLANK, but in the book (THE HUNTER), Parker is the machine.

    That's not to say that the films are not enjoyable because I think each has its merits. But if you threw the desert island question at me, I'd take the book everytime.

  7. Well, it's clear now that I HAVE to read The Hunter. And that is a very good linked article discussing the films. I'm interested, when you get the chance to see the Dir. Cut, to hear your thoughts on it, too. BTW, that cut also has a DW interview in its extras. Thanks, Corey.

  8. Well, you made me want to rent it again, to see Mel during happier times before he imploded.

    Happy 4th!

    I hope you don't live anywhere near the route to the Staples Center with MJ's funeral coming up Tuesday.

  9. I agree, Nordette. This was the pre-imploded Mel (sans excess) in a great movie.

    Luckily, we're west of what'll be a spectacle around Staples come Tue, and shouldn't see the crowd/traffic effects of this. The UCLA Med Center really got hit with that the day he died.

    Happy Fourth back at 'ya. And thanks for your comment, Nordette.

  10. This was always one of my favorite movies, and I had forgotten about it. It is a movie you have to pay attention to; it's been some time since I watched so I think I will check it out again. Kurt Russell has always been better then he was given credit for. Thanks for a great post on a great movie...and jolting my memory!

  11. Glad to have you drop by, Bev. And if it's your favorite, too, so much the better. And Kurt is definitely a favorite actor of mine. When I viewed it again this year, I picked up on how well he performed in his wordless scene watching Maguire attempting to intimidate Jo Ann in the interview room. The man is effortless. Thanks, Bev, for your comment.