Heavy on talk and short on stunts, Tequila Sunrise is an 80s crime flick that goes for a vibe – Casablanca, say, meets 8 Million Ways to Die – and barely succeeds.
Mel Gibson, Michelle Pfeiffer and Kurt Russell play, respectively, a shy drug dealer, a sleek Italian restaurateur, and a slick cop. They’re wise fools, hot bods on whom the writer-director, Robert Towne, hangs a cloud of zingers. The guys are best friends. Their jobs encroach on one another. The guys want the girl. The girl wants both of them, but she chooses one. A Mexican drugpin stirs the pot. Everyone puts the girl in a compromising position. A showdown is inevitable. Loyalty, to one’s job, one’s allies, is tested. In this L.A., Towne’s L.A., loyalty is coin. And, savoring their lines, the characters hide their true motives until they feel they don’t have to, or narcissism (innate SoCal narcissism) becomes them.
The tricky plot ends neatly. Over-tidying, it betrays all that came before. Think on this. Bob Towne wrote Chinatown (1974). That film’s director, Roman Polanski, made the labored intricacies of the plot overwhelm the hero (a doomy move that Towne resisted, but one that preserved the integrity of the core). He put the period at the end of the movie: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” It was flavored stuff, yes, but it was f*cked-up, too. Chinatown was a world, a state of mind, that did everyone in. Polanski made this plain. In Tequila Sunrise, Towne toys with our modern crime movie assumptions. The cops are almost as bad as the criminals – but. Crime is a gentleman’s game. There’s even a literally steamy sex scene without skin or simulated sex. (The scene is used more for comic effect.) From that point on the film flags. In a foggy harbor, the characters confound and cross each other, tiredly. Then a guy and his gal hug it off in the tequila sunrise (which looks more like a tequila sunset). But wait. Up till now the plot had smeared both sides of the law. The whole house of cards should have collapsed on our trio 1. Instead we get a happy ending. It feels false.
The Gibson character is the worst offense. Dude is a successful coke dealer who wants to go straight. In Pfeiffer’s character (God, she’s stunning), he sees all he can’t buy – grace, respectability, etc. But he himself is a darling. A clever idea. He never escapes Towne’s rather shallow conception of him. Gibson’s business is vicious. On L.A. turf, there’s gonna be a lotta guys who want to try and muscle in on his good thing. Shouldn’t he be a bit of a nasty? Even a little bit? The hole at the center of his role is symptomatic of the film: In the post-Tony Montana world of drug trafficking, Tequila Sunrise is a gilded throwback, dolled up but hollow as hell. And yet. The gentility of it all would make Raymond Chandler blush. He’d wear a bitter beer face.
Towne made Tequila Sunrise as a way to get back on the Hollywood map. Previous films with which he had been associated had not done well at the box office. This film, though — it cleaned up. And his touch had dimmed. In Chinatown and Shampoo (1975, dir. Hal Ashby), he loved his characters as people. They could be vain goofballs (the SoCal kind), up against a jaded and/or corrupt establishment, a system where nearly everyone plays “the game”; where they have designs on each other (or grow some, fast), and no-one is really as he or she seems (to the audience, at least, if not to themselves). What’s more, they seem to speak in their own voices – a Towne specialty. He carves these characters with care; the lines they speak belong to them. Tequila Sunrise IS a Towne project. Hot narcissists crowd the great big convoluted world of sleaze and sin; Los Angelenos do L.A. sh*t. But Towne craved a hit, and he wanted to employ his style. So, past all substance, he romanticized the narcissism. He convoluted the convolutions. Maybe he was too close to the material. No matter. The film is a warm blur.
Tequila Sunrise is, finally, about the light in L.A. and the way it shadows a swank group of faces. (Conrad Hall lights the film through a cherry Long Beach.) Bob Towne wanted to make that kind of a movie, a movie full of glamorous gab 2. It reminds me of The Big Sleep (1946, dir. Howard Hawks), a film that toes the line between laid-back cool and cockeyed mystery. That, however, is a dark film overflowing with talent and depth and atmosphere. We like the hero, too. He’s believable. Tequila Sunrise lacks a believable hero. It has no great scenes. Its charming, corrupt L.A. is much too tame.
For the tradition it seeks to ply (and possibly subvert), the writing in Tequila Sunrise is just not up to snuff. It’s spillikins in the harbor.
1 There is a rumor that Warner Brothers insisted on a happy ending.
2 Real sparks fly between Russell and the late, great J.T. Walsh. The comic timing is superb. Check the bit where Russell throws a coffee tray. It makes me laugh every time.