Tequila Sunrise (1988) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film

Is it possible for a big budget Hollywood movie to be too thought-provoking or even too original? Aren’t mainstream movies, by definition, positioned to reinforce rather than question viewer expectations? Odd as it may seem when discussing a glamorous 80s thriller, Tequila Sunrise may be a case in point. The film was written and directed by Robert Towne and, like his Oscar-winning Chinatown (1974), this was another dip into the world of Film Noir but with a decidedly contemporary sensibility. It was promoted as a glossy romantic thriller featuring Mel Gibson, Michelle Pfeiffer and Kurt Russell – three of the most photogenic stars of that or any other Hollywood era – but offers much more besides.

The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected.

“What is it? You need some chap stick or lip gloss or something? Because your lips keep getting stuck on your teeth. Or is that your idea of a smile?” – Giovanna Vellenari (Michelle Pfeiffer) to Nick Frescia (Kurt Russell)

While this is a film that has plenty of smart dialogue and a plot full of clever twists and reversals, it also deserves kudos for trying to do some things that are really difficult. For instance? Well, for starters the romantic lead is also a cocaine smuggler. In addition the romantic triangle shifts several times as we see the leading lady flit from one friend to the other as their relationship comes under pressure. And then there is the plot, which in places becomes fearsomely complex. It did fairly well at the box office on the strength of its cast but somehow it wasn’t quite the big critical and commercial success everybody hoped it would be despite its pedigree – how does it hold up today?

This is a film with style to spare and pages and pages of quotable dialogue, all of which help navigate the audience through the intricacies of the plot and the complexities of the characters in a movie driven mostly by dialogue. Nick Frescia (Kurt Russell) is the new Lieutenant in charge of narcotics for LA County and is at odds with the DEA over their surveillance of Dale ‘Mac’ McKussic (Mel Gibson), a renowned drug dealer who is now said to be going straight. Nick is angry not just because he dislikes the method employed by foolish DEA Agent Hal Maguire (scene-stealer extraordinaire J. T. Walsh), but because Mac also happens to be his oldest friend. Their friendship goes back a lifetime and, like brothers, includes a large dose of rivalry, which is brought to the fore in the stunning shape of Pfeiffer’s high-class Italian restaurateur Jo Ann (or Giovanna more properly though she doesn’t exactly look that Mediterranean …). Mac spends a lot of time eating at her place and the DEA has been staking it out, convinced she is involved in some shady deal of Mac’s.

Nick starts a relationship with her while trying to figure out what is going on as it seems that Columbian drug lord Carlos is coming to town – and Mac is the only one who can identify him. To this already heady mix we then add Mexican police officer Escalante, played with bags of Latin charm by Raul Julia, and Mac’s untrustworthy cousin (Arliss Howard), Mac’s money-hungry ex-wife, and their young boy. The first half of the film is bathed in the amber glow of California’s South Beach area but the story becomes steadily darker once Mac’s motives become clearer and Nick’s become murkier as he is torn between his genuine friendship with Mac, his attraction to Giovanna (OK, Jo Ann) and his professional ambition to finally arrest Carlos and get the odious Hal off his back.

The dialogue is smart and extended and this is a film in which it is a real pleasure just to listen to people talk to each other and not just trade quips or veiled insults – they all have points of view and none of them want to truly reveal themselves. Mac is a criminal now trying to go straight and is used to hiding while Nick, who is always apparently in control and beautifully clothed and coiffed throughout, can’t stop being a cop just when it suits him. In many ways he has a lot in common with Jo Ann, whose professional exterior proves remarkably hard to penetrate. She ultimately comes to resent Nick’s apparent double-dealing but the truth is that she is not very different, just as interested as he is in remaining in control at all times. In the end, when she chooses Mac, we see this as a liberating possibility to embrace a more open and emotionally stable life. But it is at this point that betrayals come to the surface, night descends and a fiery climax will test all the protagonists.

Glowingly photographed by the great Conrad Hall (his credits include Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man and American Beauty – for more on him, click here), the story becomes progressively Noirish, both metaphorically and literally as the extended climax – approximately the last third of the movie – all takes place at night, shrouded in fog. Just before this comes one of the film’s best scenes, and one of the toughest, and it involves a matchbook. Jo Ann realises that Nick is as interested in her as he is in arresting Carlos and may be using her to get to Mac – he has just managed to convince her that he is sincere in his feelings for her and that he is aware of the complexity of the situation:

“You don’t lose sight of the facts. Not unless you’re nuts. You just… You lose sight of your feelings. Mac knows how he feels: he’s crazy about you and he doesn’t want to get caught. For a crook it’s crystal clear. On the other hand for a cop it’s confusing. Mac’s my friend and I like him. Maguire’s my associate and I hate him. I probably have to bust my friend if I’m going to do my job. But I hate drug dealers and somebody’s got to get rid of Carlos. How do I do that?”

But then her phone goes – he gets nearer, apparently not to listen but to pick up some matches – she is relieved, but then sees that actually he had some matches near him all the time. He just can’t stop being a cop, even if it means his personal relationships have to be sacrificed. So we are now set up to meet Carlos and to see how Nick and Mac will be able to square a lifetime of friendship and rivalry with their competing agendas. Gibson is saddled with the most obviously tough part, playing an ex drug dealer trying to go straight despite pressure from all his old friends and family to keep bringing in the cash, and there is an obvious risk with such a role of losing the sympathy of the audience (which is why the originally cast Harrison Ford ultimately decided not to do the role). But Russell is truly superb as the cop with great integrity who has to decide what comes first – loyalty to his job or to his friend. His decision will leave him ultimately frustrated romantically but his choices are arguably harder than those made by Mac or Jo Ann who give in to their emotions and leave others to pick up the pieces.

“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 … Friendship is all we have. We chose each other” - Carlos

It is typical of the morally ambivalent tone of the film that it is left to the putative villain of the piece, the leader of a drug cartel, to sum up the core of the story. This last part of the film has several major twists and there is plenty of plot and incident to get through, but ultimately it is guided by the emotional demands of the characters: will the DEA make Nick arrest his friend? Will Jo Ann decide which man she truly loves? Will the opera-loving, ping-pong playing Carlos let Mac truly get out of the drug trafficking business?

Nearly 25 years after its initial release, this remains a fine example of neo-Noir in terms of its look and characters and remains notable as a film that takes some real chances in terms of its subject matter. on top of which, it also trusts its audience to pay attention to long sections driven by dialogue in which character and motive are revealed though the smallest of glances or verbal inflections – ultimately rewarding them with a big action climax at the end and a clinch at sunset. Truly then, an adult Hollywood genre movie – if only there were more of them.

DVD Availability: It is currently available on a pretty decent DVD with a very candid and informative audio commentary by producer Thom Mount, but this was released in the very early days of the format – after 15 years it really needs an upgrade to Blu-ray.

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

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16 Responses to Tequila Sunrise (1988) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film

  1. Patrick says:

    I remember pulling this DVD off the shelves from my parents’ DVD collection and not really expecting much of the movie. Instead, I got a really good bit of entertainment. But you’ve covered it far better than I have already. Great review of a sorely underappreciated film!

    • Thanks Patrick, very kind you! I first saw it on a plane when it came out, back when thats till seemed like an exciting novelty, so it would have looked like crap and had all the bad language and sex cut out – and I still thought it was a great movie! If you can survive network TV butchering or onboard “modification” that must be sure proof that you have a really solid movie.

  2. Colin says:

    Good write up of a movie that does deserve credit. I think the cast were largely responsible for ensuring the film did reasonable business back when it was released. If it didn’t perform quite as well as it should have, then I think that’s down to two factors – the complexity of the plotting, and the way the movie was marketed. Many noir themed pictures (both classic and neo) have the kind of dense plots that can be almost overwhelming on first viewing, at least to the point where some subtler aspects of the movie get lost. As for the second point, I seem to remember this being sold as a fairly straight romantic thriller; ok, there is that side present, but it’s not exactly a fair representation of what plays out on screen. In a way, I think the film suffers a little from the excessive gloss that was used as a selling point.

    Viewed today, providing you know what to expect when you go in, it may get a different reaction. The leading trio no longer represent the kind of box-office draw that was the case a quarter of a century ago (Jesus! That’s kind of scary to type!) and so anyone coming at it fresh may not have the same preconceptions to deal with.

    • Cheers Colin. I think you’re right about the way it was sold and the over-emphasis on the glossier aspects to make it seem like Miami Vice. Understandable but not really accurate (but, hey, that’s marketing).

      Amazing to think it’s been that long and the actors are all still hard at it in Tinseltown. The truly furstrating thing is that this movie would not get made for threatrical distribution today, much too edgy. Instead it would be a 13-part serries made for cable and you can see how they could extend the main plot and expand all the supporting players and probably conclude on a cliff-hanger on the explosion at the pier, which could definitely work.

      The movie was originally a lot longer in fact and had a huge subplot about Carlos’ son and his involvement in a drug deal gone wrong in San Francisco and had Mac having to go there and get him out of it. The ending was apparently completely re-shot to make it much shorter – is it the last major movie to end on a freeze frame?

  3. John says:

    Ah the young Michelle Pfeiffer – back when she was the hottest actress on screen. What Hitchcock could’ve done with her! Still love her performance in THE FABULOUS BAKER BOYS. And it took practically forever to hear her lush singing voice again when she did that somewhat campy turn as the nasty TV station owner Velma Van Tussle in HAIRSPRAY. I saw TEQUILA SUNRISE when it first came out but recall very little of it other than it had that neo-noir BODY HEAT vibe to it. Thanks for another of your usually detailed insightful reviews. I’ll have to revisit both of those films – maybe do a double feature of the two sometime in the near future.

    BTW – finally caught up with PARANOIAC a few weeks ago. Strange is an understatement, isn’t it? I loved every minute of it! I figured out the identity of the masked choir boy but never saw the entombed body gimmick coming. Such a mix of genre tropes in that flick – kind of like a Gothic suspense goulash on film.

    • Cheers John!

      Fabulous Baker Boys
      is a fantastic film, no question about it – I suppose you could argue the closest she has come to a Hitchcock style movie is What Lies Beneath, which until the finale I thought was pretty good (breaks my personal rule of good storytelling – don’t introduce the supernatural just so you can use it to get your characters out of trouble at the end!). And she’s great in one of my next Forgotten Tuesday movies, Into the Night, which really needs re-assessing in my view – classic mix of pratfalls, BB King, star cameos, black comedy and spills – what’s not to love?

      Goulash is the perfect description for Paranoiac! Despite all the sensational story elements it’s all underplayed and then all of a sudden you get a Gothic barnstorming finale! Next up on my Hammer list is Bette Davis as the nanny …

  4. Colin says:

    Pfeiffer was smokin hot – in Tequila Sunrise she didn’t have the opportunity to show off the raw earthiness that she displayed in The Fabulous Baker Boys, and what a great movie that remains. Sergio, I’m with you on What Lies Beneath, a pretty good picture badly comromised by a frankly silly ending.

    I can’t honestly imagine how Tequila Sunrise could have been improved upon by the inclusion the subplot you mentioned. In these days of reissued, revised, extended, unrated director’s cuts I’ve no doubt we would be treated to every cut second though, regardless of the fact this stuff is usually deleted for the best of reasons. I’m of the opinion that the influence of TV on film (once upon a time the reverse was true) is becoming negative. Not only is there an undue emphasis on medium to close shots and the kind of fast cutting that brings on nausea on the big screen, but we also get the overexpansion of minor roles and the insertion of frequently pointless subplots. Sometimes less definitely is more.

    Looking forward to that post on The Nanny too. A creepy, intelligent and stylish film.

    • Pfeiffer’s is a difficult role, having to play this ultra slick, polished but essentially innocent and naive person – she does it well but I agree that actually it probably could have been better if she were a little less romanticised by the end, though I’m nit-picking because she is very good in it.

      I know exactly what you mean about the negative effect of TV, which is certainly contributing to making big budget releases even more blank visually and risk-averse in terms of content. You end up being really grateful for a film like Christopher Nolan’s Inception – despite its faults and occasional self indulgence (and which really was not nearly as complex as people make out, was it?) – because at least they push the envelope a little bit, stylistically and thematically, and at the top end of the budget scale. It’s got the point where a really solid, noir movie like Million Dollar Baby is considered radical and only really got made because Eastwood wanted to. Eastwood in my book deserves enormous amounts of praise, even for some of his lesser efforts, just for trying to be different and ignoring trends when he is making personal projects – but he’s 80 now and who is there to replace him? The likes of De Palma (of whom I am a huge fan) and other strongly individual filmmakers are being frozen out of Hollywood and working independently and Scorsese’s work of late has been as technically brilliant as ever but to me pretty uninspired. And it doesn’t help when the likes of John McTiernan go and get themselves put on trial for lying tot he FBI …

  5. In the instant I saw the title, the poster and the line-up I knew I had seen this film several years ago, on heavily-censored cable television (you were right there, Sergio). I had quite forgotten about this film till I read your excellent review. I might be wrong here but Kurt Russell and Mel Gibson made a career out of playing cops and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were equally convincing had they switched places in TEQUILA SUNRISE. They could have played friends or brothers with equal ease. There is a striking similarity in their on-screen persona that goes beyond looks (though, they look like twins in that second photograph!) For instance, I was thinking of Russell switching places with Gibson in LETHAL WEAPON and see how it looked. But then, Russell might not carry the element of humour that Gibson does in the LW series.

    Talking about Mel Gibson, I’d be interested to know your views on MAD MAX, Sergio. It hasn’t held for me since I watched it in the very early 1980s.

    • Hello Prashant, thanks for the comments. Gibson’s persona seems to be partly based on projecting a slightly unbalanced aura, which made him perfect as the suicidal Riggs in the Lethal Weapon series (well, the first two anyway). Ruseell always comes across as more grounded and stable, though they are both very good at giving very little away. Gibson was slightly uneasy in action comedies like Bird on the Wire whereas Russell I think would find that easier to play an everyman (or romethign really silly like Tango & Cash). But I agree, they have so much in common that they could easily have exchanged roles, which would certainly have made for a fascinating dynamic.

      Russell is to my mind pretty underrated as an actor – when he gets the chance, as he does here and in Tombstone and Dark Blue, he is really impressive.

      I remember really liking the epic scale and tone of Mad Max 2 (aka The Road Warrior) with the boy narrating of an almost mythical hero, much more so than the other 2 films (soon to be four apparently, if we believe the Interweb …) which are more straightforward it seems to me. But you know what? It’s been about 15 years since I saw either of these, so judgement shall have to be postponed …

  6. I quite agree, Sergio. Kurt Russell is “more grounded and stable” and if I were to compare him with anybody (though I don’t see why I should) then it would have to be someone like Russell Crowe, not GLADIATOR or A BEAUTIFUL MIND, but perhaps PROOF OF LIFE alongside Meg Ryan and David Morse. That’s more his kind of film — rescuing someone from hell, so to say. He was certainly “impressive” in TOMBSTONE — in spite of the superb cast, he walks away with the film, doesn’t he? He is a very intense actor and, yes, underrated, as you rightly say.

    I remember MAD MAX fairly well, though not the two sequels that followed. Gibson made quite an impact when the film was released in India.

    • I think the comparison is a pretty fair one Prashant, though perhaps Crowe is oddly able to suggest more vulnerability r even imnstability (as in The Insider), which may be a bit beyond Kurt’s range. I recently watched Crowe in The Next Three Days, which is much too slow and was especially disappointing as it as written and directed by Paul Haggis, who co-wrote the last two Bond movies as well as Eastwood’s wonderful neo-Noir Million Dollar Baby and directed Crash, which for all its roookie-director faults had many genuinely impressive moments.

  7. Mike Sutton says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed this review. It’s a film I first sought out because Pauline Kael gave it a rave review on its release and I really liked it at the time. I must watch it again – Kurt Russell is something of a favourite actor of mine.

    • Thanks very much for the comments Mike. For me it’s definitely one of those films that has just lingered and seems to have taken up small but pernmanent parking space in the recesses of my mind. And it does feel like a film that could have been made in the 70s, maybe with Nicholson and Beatty and directed by Hal Ashby – but why play fantasy movie league when you have the real thing!?

  8. Cara Roberts says:

    My Mother LOVES the handbag that Michelle is carrying but I can’t seem to find it anywhere! HELP PLEASE?

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