8 Million Ways to Die is the, uh, interesting title for a crime melodrama that turns out to be a hard-bitten, utterly traditional entry in the genre.
The movie does not outline all 8 million ways. But it does provide the requisite amount of bloodshed for this sort of potboiler.
It also does more, or at least tries to. The story of an alcoholic ex-cop who sees a shot at redemption in the solving of a murder is a classic set-up for this kind of film, and it’s taken quite seriously here.
The credits are from the A-list: director Hal Ashby (Being There, Coming Home), screenwriter Oliver Stone (Scarface), and the two expressive stars, Jeff Bridges and Rosanna Arquette. Actually, Arquette (in a role that Jamie Lee Curtis backed out of at the last minute) doesn’t have a great deal to do. But Bridges, as he generally does, provides a strong center that pulls the film over the holes in its plot.
He’s the ex-cop. One night he receives a bewildering invitation to a party from a woman (Alexandra Paul) he doesn’t know, or at least doesn’t remember. She’s a prostitute mixed up with some heavy hitters in the Los Angeles crime scene, and she asks Bridges to help her exit.
But she’s killed before he can get her out of town, and Bridges, after landing in detox, resolves to find out whodunit and why. He enlists Arquette, who’s also a paid party girl, to help him get to the truth.
Ashby gets the seediness of this side of Los Angeles just right – lots of strange locations, like a mobster’s house that has no right angles. Stone’s script, while far from sublime, contains some fierce dialogue, and probably more vulgarity than any film since The Last Detail. In terms of plot, there isn’t a lot of clarity, and there’s certainly no suspense about whodunit – not that there need be, necessarily.
The big climax, a tense showdown in an abandoned warehouse, is pitched just this side of absurdity – intentionally, I think – and has the characters screaming at each other in debased desperation. A lot of people are going to think it’s stupid; I found it brutally effective.
There are a few expository scenes where everything comes to a standstill, most of the supporting parts are coarsely acted, and the final few shots are gag-me hokey. But with all the jagged edges, the movie carries an occasional punch.
First published in the Herald, May 21, 1986
The interesting title comes courtesy of Lawrence Block’s source novel. When I recall the film, I have a mostly positive reaction, especially for its L.A. look. It turned out to be Ashby’s last feature film. Andy Garcia is in the cast, and the movie is one of a series of AA-themed stories that came out around this time, including Garcia’s When a Man Loves a Woman, which is maybe why I think of these films together (Clean and Sober, with Michael Keaton, was another). I just looked up Alexandra Paul, who would enter the Baywatch world soon after this movie, and learned that she is a longtime activist and the 2014 Vegan of the Year.