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.