Guest Post: An in-depth look at Tequila Sunrise (1988)

Special thanks to Michael Alatorre – the sharp-witted blogger of It Rains … You Get Wet (even his blog name is clever!) » Follow Michael on Twitter

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 Los Angeles movie classic and noir thriller, Chinatown. It is a wonderfully layered neo noir film set in the distinct South Bay area of L.A. Although, I often ponder if I hadn’t attended junior college right after high school (and spent a formative portion of my student life in and around that southern region that ends at the beach), would I care as much as I do for this film? Here, I’ll let the Captain Renault-like character 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

Set at the end of the Reagan-era 80’s, with a soundtrack to match (like a few of us, 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 a film of friendships, set in a small corner of the Drug War between cops and smugglers. Some have criticized this film for being confusing (and its production history may have something to do with that). But at its core, it is 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 Tequila Sunrise, 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. Certainly, I think Bridges could have pulled it off, but I have my doubts that Ford would have been as successful here as Gibson is in this character. [Note: recent train wreck behavior aside, I’m only here to speak about the actor as it pertains to this film and his role in it] For 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 other big name actors would have undertaken a role like this, one so on the other side of the objective. Remember, this was the period of ‘Just Say No’, and a push back on the cause célèbre for then First Lady Nancy Reagan. Here, the character wants to remain disengaged from his former living in the drug business (in a capacity that he’s been so good at for so long) and a chance at an ordinary family life. But, as he puts it:

“… nobody wants me to quit.”

Not so much opposing him, but being the flip side of a ethically dubious coin, is Lt. Nick Frescia (who at the start, newly heads up L.A. County’s drug enforcement unit). Most crime fiction (in book or film) centered in the City of the Angels, 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 (and larger) L.A. Sheriffs. The vastly underrated Kurt Russell plays this character as a smart, slick operator capable of breaking the law whenever 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? They were up for it. Even the then L.A. Laker coach, Pat Riley, was envisioned for the role. Which by way of style and manner, Kurt pays homage to in his performance. Like Mel, Russell is quite capable of playing the ambiguous lead (see the later Dark Blue for further proof). Even when he’s not speaking Towne’s crisp dialogue, Russell is equally adept without words. His facial expressions during his wordless observation of a DEA interrogation are simply masterful. Watch him throughout and I think you’ll see why Nick’s character in a league with certain Vichy police captain.

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.”

robert-towneTo really begin to understand these two characters, southern Cal-native, and renowned screenwriter, Robert Towne sprinkles his well-known and sharp dialogue throughout the movie as a way of building Mac and Nick’s history and the plot line. Hence, the reason a few quotations appear in this post. The story makes clear these two protagonists friendship is long, and probably always rivalrous, as guys are known to be. And, it is the key point of the tale. The writer/director also 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 his or her life. Indeed, it provides a great springboard for the story, one that the screenwriter effectively mines quite well. The characters friendship has continued, and intertwined even more, 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 vital support (A Few Good Men) in film and TV duty. In this role, he’s in top form as the smarmy Fed… and the one who is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Maguire presumptuously maneuvers Nick to seek to nail his friend Mac (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 another friend’s arrival. In this case, the drug overlord “Carlos” is 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). Julia, who once played Guido Contini in the original Broadway play of Nine, (don’t get me started on Rob Marshall’s film adaptation of same) gets to showcase why he was so good on stage and on film.

Further muddling matters are Mac’s longing for restaurateur Jo Ann Vallenari. The gorgeous Michelle Pfeiffer plays her for all her smart and sexy toughness, in a befitting role for a neo noir film. And it wouldn’t be melodrama if there weren’t a triangle in there. Naturally, all of this is made even more difficult when Nick immediately sees her as someone who can help him with his case against his longtime bud. However, the lieutenant is just not prepared for his feelings, the resulting consequences for both he and Mac, and the choices true friendship sometimes demands. All will dovetail to a fiery and passionate confrontation among friends in a fog-shrouded scene in Long Beach harbor.


Tequila Sunrise is a film that has been somewhat forgotten and dismissed. Though some see it as dated, the decade of the 80s remains distinct, and this drama offers a good display of the era and its ramifications. High concept it’s not. Still, the film is nothing if not an entertaining primer on the twists and turns of the bonds that link us, and the implications of choice upon them. Of course, this movie plays better for those who watch carefully and enjoy the craft of a master scriptwriter. 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 throughout by the famed Conrad Hall. For instance, one standout scene has to be the sunset summit sequence between Mac and Nick on the beachside with a spectacular sunset going on in the background. If you listen to the top-notch commentary track by producer Thom Mount (who gives some great insight on the film’s production) on the impromptu locale of that section of the film, you’ll discover how remarkable was its result. A big credit to has to go to the late cinematographer and crew for what they achieved in the scene that had time and that setting sun against it.

The 1997 DVD is now very long in the tooth and is certainly in need of re-issue, remastering, and new extras. Hopefully, a future disc will offer broader input from all those involved for how the film evolved to its final cut. It would be interesting to hear more from Robert Towne about the production, which this DVD lacks. However, I suspect Gibson’s current reputation is now a hindrance to a new studio disc release. There was some contention mentioned in the commentary track and at IMDb regarding the feature. While the initial ending had to be re-shot, I wouldn’t change a thing. Also, be on the watch for a wonderful cameo by the legendary western director (and Robert Towne favorite), Budd Boetticher, in the role of Judge Nizetitch. It’s a small but superb tribute for a director that deserves greater recognition. Lastly, I’ll end this post with a significantly killer piece of dialogue that serves as a great thumbnail for this underrated film, 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 f*** it up? How could you make us look so bad?”

Have you seen Tequila Sunrise? Please share your thoughts on the film

27 thoughts on “Guest Post: An in-depth look at Tequila Sunrise (1988)

  1. Ted S.

    Great write up Michael, I haven’t seen this movie in years. I was in love with Michelle Pfeiffer back in those days and I thought the film was a shoot’em up action flick. I don’t remember much about it though and I thought it was directed by Richard Donner, seemed like every movie Gibson starred in was directed by Donner at the time. I hope Warner Bros. release it on Blu-ray soon so I can check it out again.

    1. I think, given that he’d done Lethal Weapon the year before, the marketing of this film led many to believe it was another Mel Gibson “shoot’em up action flick.” And it’s not that. Though, it really is one of the best examples of 80s-distinct neo noir for the period. Thanks so much, Ted. And a very sincere appreciation to Ruth for allowing me to contribute to her exceptional blog.

  2. Wow wee woo wee that is a proper write up. I am both jealous and impressed in equal measures by your writing skills Michael.

    I like Ted have not seen this film in what seems like donkey’s year. I really must give it a proper going over as it has been way too long.

    You have inspired me to do so.

    Thanks so much for putting this together!!


    1. Very kind of you to say, Custard. I have a soft spot for this film — I saw it in theaters when it was released, had the VHS tape, and finally the DVD. Thank you so much, my friend.

  3. Hi, Michael, Ted, Le0pard and company:

    Excellent post!

    ‘Tequila Sunrise’ is one of those laconically moving, visual and character driven stories stories from the 1980s that just aren’t made anymore.

    Reminiscent of another laid back, Jeff Bridges films that few have heard of, yet has aged well and still stands up today.

    Ivan Passer’s ‘Cutter’s Way’. Which Hollywood just has to initially mess with. Since the novel it’s based on, ‘Cutter & Bone’ didn’t poll well with preview audiences, Thankfully, the suits did only that and let Passer create a gem that draws you in slowly with a dark and stormy night and takes you on a voyage of discovery through corruption and murder. With wounded Vietnam vet John Heard as Cutter leading the way. Followed closely by Bridges’ Bone.

    Glad that Mel Gibson took the heavy’s role in ‘Tequila Sunrise’ and made it work so well opposite Kurt Russell and Michelle Pfeiffer.

    One of three great Neo~Noirs from the 80s that includes ‘Against All Odds’, ‘Cutter’s Way’ and ‘The Long Goodbye’ from 1973.

    1. So great to hear of another fan of Ivan Passer’s ‘Cutter’s Way’! I very much agree with you that TS fits so well with the neo noirs of the time like ‘Against All Odds’ and ‘Cutter’s Way’. Altman’s absolutely marvelous ‘The Long Goodbye’, Arthurs Penn’s ‘Night Moves’, and the truly forgotten gem ‘Hickey & Boggs’ (a film I wrote up last week, btw) would be part of my set for the 70s. Thank you for the kind words and comment.

      1. Hi, Le0pard and all.

        Excellent catches on ‘Night Moves’ and ‘Hickey & Boggs’!

        The former being what I consider Gene Hackman’s superb, low key take on a modern Phillip Marlowe every bit a good and memorable as Elliot Gould in Altman’s ‘The Long Goodbye’.

        I caught ‘Hickey & Boggs’ ages ago. Simply because I’m a huge of the late, always under-rated Robert Culp and his work with Bill Cosby in ‘I Spy’.

        ‘Hickey & Boggs’ was unique for its time in showing the grimy, slimy, sometimes uncomfortable sides of LA under Culp’s helm and Arthur Penn’s writing. Where local cops openly despise Private Investigators and for introducing Michael Moriarty as a memorable borderline psycho bad guy.

        1. No surprise, given your wonderful taste in the neo noirs of the 70s/80s you’d be familiar with ‘Hickey & Boggs’. And yes, so many great character actors appeared in that film (including Moriarty). I, too, am a long-time fan of the late and still greatly missed Robert Culp. He was very much part of my childhood with his TV work with I Spy, the original Outer Limits series, and his appearances in the old western programs of the day. Thanks for adding to this.

  4. This is a mighty excellent post, Michael! Thanks for this. I definitely will add this to my Netflix queue when I get back. Great cast, too, these were the big hitters back then.

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  7. While I don’t quite have the gift of words you’ve expressed in this post, I concur wholeheartedly with your take on this film. I would proudly consider myself a member of the “Tequila Sunrise Fan Club”, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable film, and looks better than ever thanks to the recent Blu-ray release.
    The three principle actors were at the peak of their popularity at the time, and they were terrific in their roles. Funny how each of them in their own way were quite underrated as talents. They were known first and foremost as Hollywood heavyweights, and less for their acting chops. Mel Gibson was a very talented dramatic actor and Michelle Pfeiffer was hampered in a sense by her alluring beauty. Kurt Russell is tremendously talented but the seemingly simple things often get overlooked in this performance, such as the scene with the matches in the restaurant and the whole fixing his greased back hair in the mirror.
    The supporting cast was wonderful as well, with the sadly missed Raul Julia managing to portray a somewhat sympathetic and light-hearted drug kingpin.
    This film and “The Fabulous Baker Boys” to me rank amongst the finest of the era. Not so coincidentally, they both starred Michelle Pfeiffer. Did I mention how incredibly beautiful she was and still is?

    1. Great to see you here, Paul. And so glad the “Tequila Sunrise Fan Club” has you as a member! I picked up the recent Blu-ray when it was released for my annual viewing this year. Great to hear it looks even better than ever. Since I put a turntable back in my life last year, I even picked the TS soundtrack on vinyl, which has my wife giving me funny looks.

      Great points you make about this film, too. Love this cast and their roles. Watching this makes me miss Raul Julia more each time. Especially that voice. Since he starred on the Broadway stage for ‘Nine’, he would have made it a better film adaptation if he’s have starred in it. TS and The Fabulous Baker Boys would make a fantastic double-bill. Have to agree with you about Michelle. We still can’t take our eyes off of her.

      Many thanks for the wonderful comment, Paul 🙂

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  13. Wonderful article. Thank you for writing it. I love this movie. I saw it when it came out and still love it today. I think Mel, Michelle and Kurt are so beautiful in this film. Is it me or are there just not many good movies being made today? I despise all this CGI or whatever it’s called, so ugly and harsh. You are right in how great the cinematography was in this film. Wouldn’t it be great if the three of them could make another movie together? What would be a good plot for a movie for them?

    1. Always great to run into another fan of TEQUILA SUNRISE, Page. We’re definitely on the same wavelength, and I’d be right there with you in line to buy a ticket, if these three leads cast together again. And don’t get me started on the overuse of CGI in many of current movies. Many thanks for the kind words and comment. 🙂

  14. Jackdaw

    I fully agree: this movie needs close watching, if not study. The more you watch it, the better it becomes, until you start to recognize it as a true masterpiece.
    The script, the dialogues, cinematography, the acting, the music, the casting.

    Allow me to add a few words about Ms. Pfeiffers’ Jo Ann Vallenari.

    With the casting of Pfeiffer for this role evaporated any issue of making plausible that both Mac and Nick fall deeply in love with Jo Ann. “Just looking at you hurts more..” (Mac, to Jo Ann); sure. We believe him. It is the intro to a beautiful love scene in a steamy hot tub; the kiss, filmed in slow motion, of Jo Ann rising from the steamy water to kiss Mac, all by itself could explain the box office success.

    But then, Ms. Pfeiffer’s sublime acting. Bear in mind the contrast with her role in “Dangerous Liaisons”, which is from the very same year(!). I wish mention one scene from T.S.

    Jo Ann is professional, kind, honest and principled. These are the words of Nick Fresia, when he confesses to her that he has misled her in romance for the sake of perhaps getting information our of her about Mac, or Carlos.

    Nick tells her he has checked her out, including details of her romances of the last three years. How does such a lady feel, learning all this? No words can do justice to how Ms. Pfeiffer shows us. She sits at the bar in het restaurant, in silence. Finally, she looks at him, full of tears, and asks, “So, what else do you know about me, Nick?”, opening an abyss of human depth and emotions before our very eyes.

    Don’t be so carried away by her beauty, so as to overlook the art delivered by a truly great actress.

  15. jc

    Great write-up of one of my favorite films. One thing has always confused me though.

    In the scene where Mac’s cousin is supposed to be buying the cocaine from Carlos, why does he count the money in the suitcase? He’s acting like a seller who is checking that the money is all there rather than a buyer.

  16. Bob M

    I read a lot of film blogs and reviews. For me its a way to connect with other film fans who might have had similar reactions about a film. I don’t usually write comments, but think your review was well written and I really enjoyed it.

    I’m a rabid film watcher/collector and probably have 5 to 7 thousand titles dating back to the silent era. I mention this only to say that out of all of those titles, Tequila Sunrise is near the top of my fav list. I saw it at the theater when it was released in 88 and I watch it at least once a year (watching it right now-the brilliant Pfeiffer scene at police station just passed – lol) Although it was a pretty decent hit when it was first released, it has–as you mentioned, been largely forgotten. But like many great works of art that end up on that path, they can emerge from the ashes of history to be re-assessed. Its a wonderful life was forgotten until repeated TV airings in the late 70s resurrected it.

    Many reviews of this film are very negative which is puzzling to me as my opinion has always been that it’s a brilliantly written and executed screenplay. It has its problems such as the thick, confusing plot, but repeated viewings will not only clarify the plot, but also uncover the layered meaning of the story. Although I still don’t know how the movie’s title ties into the story – maybe no tie-in but simply a catchy title to match the beautiful Conrad Hall photography -lol?

    There’s also a lot of debate around what “type” of story/genre it is. It recently aired on TCM as part of their neo-noir series and Eddie Muller classifies it as neo-noir/comedy. Not sure about comedy apart from Julia’s scenes, but I think it definitely has many noirish elements to it. I’ve always thought of it as 1940’s melodrama similar to Casablanca. Wether noir or melodrama, I think it’s a film genre that was rare in the 1980’s and sadly, mostly extinct today.

    Hopefully it’ll be rediscovered and given due respect, — hard to know, but it was nice to read a positive review of one of my favorite films.

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