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.”

To 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 a 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