On the sad day when screenwriter Robert Towne passes away, I have no doubt that the first line of his obituary will mention his screenplay for Roman Polanski's Chinatown. There are many people responsible for that film's success, but Towne deserves a significant portion of the credit for the way he constructs an endlessly complicated neo-noir plot without ever losing sight of the tale's gripping dramatic undercurrent. Fourteen years later, he would attempt a similar feat in his script for Tequila Sunrise (which he also directed), but the effort is considerably clumsier this time around.
Nick Frescia (Kurt Russell, Escape From New York) is a Lieutenant Detective with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Dale “Mac” McKussic (Mel Gibson, Braveheart) is a former drug dealer who's trying to get out of the game. Once upon a time, Nick and Mac were inseparable friends, but time and circumstances pushed them into different lives. Now, they find themselves in conflict: the DEA hears a rumor that Mac may be preparing to get back into the cocaine business in a big way, and Nick is tasked with finding sufficient evidence to bring Mac down. Meanwhile, both men begin developing feelings for Jo Ann Vallenari (Michelle Pfeiffer, Batman Returns), who runs a local restaurant.
The plot quickly grows complex and occasionally even confusing, but the film's most significant question is established almost immediately: how much love still exists between these two men? We hear a few stories that suggest their loyalty to one another was once a fierce and unshakable thing. Now, Nick worries that Mac might be willing to shoot him over a few bucks, and Mac worries that Nick might be willing to arrest him over a few pieces of flimsy evidence.
It's a melancholy fact that many friendships fade over time. Two people who were inseparable in childhood may hardly speak to one another in adulthood. Maybe things started to dissolve after your friend moved to another state, or got a different job, or had kids, or stopped going to your church, or found new friends, or became an avid Donald Trump supporter. Maybe you were the one who did those things. I suspect that almost all of us can remember at least one or two people we used to be close to, but eventually drifted away from. Mac's cousin Gregg puts it best:
“I don't know what it is about going to high school with someone that makes you feel like you're automatically friends for life. Who says? Who says friendships last forever? We'd all like it to, maybe. But maybe... it just wears out like everything else – like tires. There's just so much mileage in them and then you're riding around on nothing but air.”
This is a moving theme (and Gibson and Russell do a nice job of playing the complicated emotions of a burnt-out friendship in their scenes together), but it's not quite enough to prevent large portions of the movie from feeling like a drag. While Chinatown's complexity added immeasurably to the feeling that Jake Gittes was getting in way over his head, too much of Tequila Sunrise feels like dense plotting for the sake of dense plotting. More problematically, there are too many moments when the film seems to lose sight of the characters for the sake of focusing on the particulars of dull DEA schemes and drug cartel ambitions. The tone wobbles all over the place, too, with the dour drama offered by much of the film occasionally giving way to moments that feel imported from a considerably more playful movie (including a miscalculated climax involving Gibson and Raul Julia).
All three of the stars in Tequila Sunrise are talented, but the film doesn't use their assorted gifts particularly well. Pfeiffer in particular seems to be saddled with an awfully thankless role – she often seems to be more of a conduit for passive-aggressive communication between Nick and Mac than like a fully-developed character in her own right. Pfeiffer does what she can with the part (“If you want to f--- your friend, then f--- him, not me,” she growls at Nick), but it's not enough. Meanwhile, Russell offers a fairly standard everyman performance while Gibson delivers a muted version of Martin Riggs (depressed and charming, yes, but about 50% less in both cases). The two men are excellent together, but separately struggle to demonstrate the sort of commanding screen presence they've often demonstrated elsewhere.
Towne's direction isn't as polished as that of his most distinguished collaborators (Polanski, De Palma, Penn, etc.) - his action sequences in particular feel a little lifeless – but the film certainly has a distinctive aesthetic. Conrad Hall earned an Oscar nomination for his cinematography, offering yet another demonstration of his ability to create stunning imagery with natural light. The scene in which the L.A. sunset provides a sillouhette of Nick and Mac is so striking that you can't help but wish it belonged to a better film. Meanwhile, the soundtrack firmly plants the film in the late '80s, which is a plus when it comes to the era-appropriate pop songs but a minus when it comes to Dave Grusin's score (which too often devotes itself to delivering a second-rate imitation of the Lethal Weapon soundtrack).
Tequila Sunrise was made when Gibson and Russell were at the peak of their stardom (Pfeiffer was getting close), so I suppose it's a relief that it doesn't feel like the sort of tossed-off blockbuster that often gets made when the schedules of two superstars align (“We got Mad Max and Snake Plissken? Write a few one-liners, buy some explosives and let's shoot this sucker!”). It's an ambitious thriller with a philosophical core. Unfortunately, the surface-level material is rarely good enough to sustain the meatier material underneath. It's an interesting misfire.
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 115 minutes
Release Year: 1988