BR: Tequila Sunrise (1988)

November 4, 2015 | By


TequilaSunrise_BRFilm: Excellent

Transfer:  Very Good

Extras: Good

Label:  Warner Home Video

Region: All

Released:  January 7, 2014

Genre:  Suspense / Comedy

Synopsis: The arrival of a wanted Mexican drug lord upsets the tenuous friendship between a newly minted lieutenant, a known drug dealer, and an independent-minded restauranteur.

Special Features:  2010 Audio Commentary by producer Thom Mount / Theatrical Trailer.




According to producer Thom Mount (who provided a commentary track for the film’s original 2010 DVD release), Tequila Sunrise came into being when Towne launched a lawsuit with Warner Bros. regarding his prior directing debut, Personal Best, and part of the settlement including the studio funding and releasing a film which the esteemed screenwriter would act as writer & director.

The film that ultimately emerged was part film noir, part detective thriller, but with an emphasis on major character building between two university buddies who took polar career paths – one a drug dealer, the other a lieutenant applying sometimes sneaky methods to achieve goals.

Towne had initially wanted Harrison Ford and Alec Baldwin, but the final casting choices of Mel Gibson and Kurt Russell proved perfect – especially since TR ranks as one of Russell’s best screen performances, balancing humour with a dark undercurrent.

Gibson’s fine as McKussic, the too-successful, highly reluctant drug dealer sitting on a stash of coke and cash belonging to an associate and ‘buddy’ named Carlos, while Russell reportedly patterned Lt. Frescia after Lakers coach Pat Riley, adopting the slicked-back hair and attention to fine duds and chunky bling. Both actors maintain great screen chemistry in spite of their characters being lifelong rivals, almost trying to outdo the other in crime and law enforcement, and women.

The pair’s already wobbly friendship is tested when Frescia swoops in and starts to impress the restauranteur whom McKussic has an almost boyish infatuation:  Jo Ann Valenari (Michelle Pfreiffer), a woman quick to return an equally sharp jab to an accuser, but one easy to fall for bad boys because they offer a certain risk that’s wholly absent from her regimented job.

The film’s core relationships are the two competitive friends, and McKussic’s dangerous friendship with drug dealer Carlos (whose inimitable voice makes it clear which actor will reveal himself as the Mexican drug lord).

Mount’s commentary – which starts strong but withers into sporadic bits around the film’s midpoint – sheds light on the early casting choices and extra character scenes pruned for redundancy and length, including scenes shot but deleted involving Carlos’ son.

TS never becomes dark or sadistic, which is typical of late eighties action-mystery-thrillers beloved (or disliked) for their unique combination of light drama, doses of smart-ass comedy, fast quips, and action. Towne’s film maintains a steady tone that’s always straddling the border of light comedy and elemental aspects of a classic noir – namely the double-cross, friends pitted against each other, and a hot dame – and for most of its nearly 2 hour running time it is a perfect movie, transcending audience expectations with engrossing character moments that keep layering details and tension as McKussic and Frescia are forced into starkly defined corners, but then things get hazy, as though Towne knew (or was asked) to steer the film’s new foes into a rapprochement.

Carlos is the script’s fall guy: being a ‘good’ bad guy, he has to suffer and be the chief orchestrator of all malaise to ensure Frescia and McKussic’s friendship remains tethered from a taut arm’s length. That aspect makes sense (and ensures the film’s happy ending), but what happens to Valenari in the final third is kind of a betrayal to the character’s steely independence.

The consummation of McKussic’s silent, distant boyish affection for Valenari happens not in a bedroom tussle but in a backyard hot tub where the intertwined lovers literally surge upwards from the steaming water like ocean mammals, set to Dave Grusin’s pop jazz theme rendition with obligatory wailing sax.

Unlike Jerry Goldsmith’s music for the Towne-scripted seventies noir classic Chinatown (1974), there’s no tragedy in Grusin’s theme – at best, there’s light mystery packaged in an up-tempo container – although a Mexican guitar piece nails McKussic’s squirmy relationship with Carlos: it’s a genuine friendship rooted in a pivotal event (being rescued from jail) but it’s also a relationship that will potentially destroy McKussic when Carlos returns after a long absence to reclaim his dope.

Where the script betrays the heroine is in the inevitable expression of love between McKussic and Valenari: each of her three ‘I love you’ are blurted in a weird catatonic state that’s supposed to evoke desperation and being love-struck (or perhaps they’re truly clumsy attempts by Towne to invoke a bit of screwball comedy).

At this point Valenari is downgraded to a mere pretty girl, and although she’s reunited with McKussic in an ending that’s interestingly anathema to the grotesque finale where Chinatown’s hero is left emotionally shredded and the heroine (spoiler alert) quite dead, the headstrong heroine seen in the film’s first half is now gone for good.

Dramatically, TS does recover from the Valenari downgrading when Carlos re-enters the scenario: even when dying, Raul Julia’s version of Carlos is a guy you’d be okay with shooting you in the head because although it’s just business, he’d do it with regret. Frescia’s still a womanizing cad, but in the finale he does the honorable thing and lets his friend get the girl.

Other memorable cast members include J.T. Walsh playing another ‘ethically challenged’ character, Arliss Howard as McKussic’s dink of a cousin, Arye Gross as McKussic’s lawyer, and cult western director Budd Boetticher (Bullfighter and the Lady, Comanche Station) in a short bit as a judge.

Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray features a clean transfer, but the last reel seems to have been taken from a lesser source – either the last few scenes were shot in soft focus, or it’s an older interlaced transfer up-resed to 1080p. It’s also a pity Grusin’s score couldn’t have been isolated as a separate stereo track – it’s a sparse score of which fewer pieces (2) were included on the short soundtrack album – but it sounds nice in uncompressed 2.0 DTS (although the old laserdisc did feature warmer bass that was closer to the original theatrical presentation).

Towne’s directed just a handful of films, but this ranks as a near-perfect work, blessed with stunning cinematography by Conrad Hall (In Cold Blood, Black Widow) and set design by Richard Sylbert (Grand Prix, Chinatown, The Cotton Club).

His films as director include Personal Best (1982), Tequila Sunrise (1988), the superb Without Limits (1998), and As the Dust (2006). The following year Michelle Pfeiffer appeared in a genuinely perfect variant, Steve Kloves’ The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989), blessed with a more superior Dave Grusin score.



© 2015 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmography
Vendor Search Links: — —

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

Comments are closed.