Tequila Sunrise is one of those films I avoided for years. Back when I worked at Bjorn's, I’d see the laserdisc over and over and over, and probably nothing else on the shelf appeared more deserving of my scorn than a film named after an Eagles song, starring three high-profile actors – none of whom I cared much for at the time - looking desperate to make a quick buck with a bad action film.
Sometimes it's great to be wrong, or at least wildly off base in one’s presumptions.
About 6 months ago, I caught Tequila Sunrise late one night on cable and gave it a shot. (Since the LD days, I’ve also had a permanent image of the title plastered on a movie marquee Louis walks under in Interview with the Vampire.) By the time it was over, I was borderline obsessed.
Perhaps my biggest goof was not realizing it was written and directed by Robert Towne. This alone makes it worth at least attempting to view. The story, as Towne’s scripts often are, is convoluted in such a way that it matters not while you're watching. Maybe when it's over you'll realize you've been taken for a ride, but not while the movie's busy sucking you in. Repeated viewings alleviate this problem to varying degrees, but whatever threads might still dangle are irrelevant.
Mel Gibson is Mac McKussic and Kurt Russell is Nick Frescia. The pair used to be best buds in their younger days. Did and sold a lot of drugs together. Probably got laid in the same room a number of times. You know, the kind of mindless nonsense guys of a certain age engage in with each other; the kind of stuff that binds friends together on a certain level for life.
In the present, Mac still sells drugs – coke to be precise – but he’s “trying to go straight”. Nick on the other hand is now a cop working with the DEA and is in the unfortunate position of having to take Mac down. And Jo Ann Vallenari (Michelle Pfieffer) is just a girl who owns a fancy Italian restaurant where Mac prefers to dine. Or is she?
The plot of Tequila Sunrise is less important than the overall story of friendship, or rather the bittersweet souring of one. A love triangle of sorts begins developing between the three characters. While it’s unspoken, there’s an exuded vibe that this isn’t the first triangle Mac and Nick have gotten themselves mixed up in, but there’s a stronger feeling coming across that maybe this one is less expendable than those of the past.
All three leads turn in the types of performances you’d expect from them, especially given the time period in which the film was released (1988). This isn’t a film about great acting; it’s a film about mood and tone (which also sets it apart from most other studio fare of the time). And the less attention paid to Gibson’s wavering accent (he was still somewhat fresh off the Aussie boat at this point in his career), the better. There is, however, one standout performance, and that’s the late Raul Julia. To say anything about his character would be to ruin one of the movie’s pleasures. Another great actor who’s no longer with us, J.T. Walsh, gives a nice turn as an inept DEA agent. (I could be biased there, as I happen to like pretty much everything I’ve ever seen Walsh do.)
An ever bigger part of what sells the affair is Conrad Hall's sun-drenched cinematography, and one scene - between Gibson & Russell facing one another on a swing set, as solar rays blot the pair into silhouette - is alone basically worth watching the film for.
The music is all Dave Grusined / Richard Marxed / Eightiesed-out. If it didn’t fit the film so well, it would be laughable. It’s worth noting that the Eagles tune is strangely nowhere to be heard, although I dare you to watch the movie without it constantly playing in the back of your mind.
Lest you think I'm selling a perfect movie, it'd be unfair to not say the last five minutes of Tequila Sunrise suck dreadfully. Not so much in a way that you’ll feel like you’ve wasted two hours getting there, but in such a way that you’ll know exactly where to turn the film off the next time you see it. This will also save you from having to suffer through Richard Marx over the end credits. Those final minutes smack of studio interference and I cannot reconcile what occurs (or doesn’t, as the case may be) in those moments with the rest of the piece.
The title, however, is wholly appropriate. It sounds like something devised in a studio head’s office – something he came up with on the way into the office on a Monday morning after a wild weekend of doing too much blow with the missus and listening to one too many Don Henley records. But it’s not only appropriate, it’s ideal. “Tequila” & “Sunrise” are perhaps two of most aptly descriptive words ever applied to the front of a movie. Nobody can ever accuse this film of not delivering what its title suggests (unless, of course, you’re hoping to hear the Eagles song).