When Robert Towne settles down to make a movie, it should be big news. Towne is one of the legitimate talents in Hollywood, a brilliant writer (he wrote Chinatown, Shampoo and The Last Detail) who has been a “script doctor” on many of the better movies released during the last couple of decades, usually without screen credit.
Towne’s career as a director extends only as far as his 1982 film, Personal Best, a terrific movie about track athletes, which had a nifty lived-in quality and a disarmingly accurate way of depicting the way real people act and talk. However, that movie didn’t do very well, and it’s taken Towne this long to direct another one.
His new film is called Tequila Sunrise, and it may well get him the commercial success he needs; but it isn’t his best work, by far.
Tequila Sunrise is a sunbleached morality play, set in Los Angeles. A cop (Kurt Russell) discovers himself once again on the trail of an old friend, a drug dealer (Mel Gibson). Russell’s always avoided busting his pal before, because of the unspoken code that places friendship above everything else.
Gibson claims he’s retired now. So what is he hatching by frequenting a particular Italian restaurant? When Russell investigates, he discovers that it has more to do with the beautiful woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) who runs the place than with any potential cocaine trafficking.
These three slip into a menage a trois that is cloaked in murky motives. Does Russell romance Pfeiffer just to get at Gibson? Is Gibson attracted by Pfeiffer for some reason other than the obvious?
Just as the movie gets this interesting trio together, it launches off into a plot involving a sting operation to nab a mysterious big-time drug lord known only as Carlos. This plot becomes more impenetrable as it goes on, and the movie feels as though it’s missing some important scenes. Business with Gibson’s son and ex-wife (Ann Magnuson) seems unfinished; there’s a bit too much shorthand going on.
But even if there were more of the movie on a cutting-room floor somewhere, it might not help. Towne has taken a deliberately stylized, old-fashioned approach to this material, which sometimes becomes downright corny. Conrad Hall’s photography certainly captures the hot LA glow, the Malibu beachfront homes and ritzy restaurants, and individual scenes sparkle with Towne’s crisp dialogue.
Towne has also written quirky character roles for supporting actors such as Raul Julia, J.T. Walsh and Arliss Howard. The three principals are fine. Gibson is straightforward, and unapologetic about playing an ex-dope dealer sympathetically; Pfeiffer is sharp and bright, keeping the men tottering off balance; Russell gets away with the best role and the best lines.
All of the film’s attributes are laudable in and of themselves. But somehow these elements, like the ingredients in a tequila sunrise, just don’t mix.
First published in the Herald, December 1, 1988
Because, you see, the ingredients in a tequila sunrise stay at their separate levels, which is what makes the drink look like a sunrise made out of tequila. I mean, the metaphor was just sitting there, how could I resist? (Can there be a more Southern California title?) I’ll bet this movie is more fun seen today, without the high expectations I had for a Robert Towne film in 1988. The one thing about it that has stuck in my head is the way Gibson’s character goes to the same restaurant every night; that seems like a classic detective-story kind of thing. Life goals.