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I don’t grow weeds in my backyard so I can pull ’em.


Tequila Sunrise


On the positive side, I found Tequila Sunrise much more engaging than I did at the time, dampened as it was by failing to be as shiny, energetic and interesting as pretty much anything else its three lead players were doing right then. On the negative, it’s illustrative of the notion that Robert Towne requires reluctant collaboration to hew the best from his screenplays; let him call his own shots (give or take the ending), and he will lapse into indulgence, cliché and lazy devices. He might even allow Dave Grusin to ladle on the unadulterated sax to boot.

Mac: Whatever you’re doing, do it somewhere else and don’t make me look bad.

With a central trio this capable, Towne also has his heavy lifting seriously dented (earlier variations had included Ford, Nolte and Bridges, and the former Alec Baldwin seemed close to getting the Nick part, until – at least, in this instance – better wisdom prevailed). There’s nothing very wrong with the set-up, familiar as it is; friends from youth Mac (Gibson) and Nick (Russell) – both thesps ranking as White Hats in the scheme of things, incidentally – are now on opposite sides of the law, one a former drug dealer, in a Pacino “They suck me back in!” situation, the other a cop finding himself in the bind of being tasked with bringing his old pal to justice. In between them is Jo Ann (Pfeiffer) a restaurateur. On the side-lines, there’s DEA agent Maguire (JT Walsh), bent on busting Mac, and the Mexican kingpin Carlos (Raul Julia) reconnecting with Mac and coming to town for a deal. There’s also Mac’s cousin Gregg (Arliss Howard), who turns out to be a DEA informant. 

Nick: Not only that, you’re white. They figure, if they print your picture in the paper, they’ll be able to see it.

There’s enough fodder here, to be sure, and both Pauline Kael and the Film Yearbook Volume 8’s Tim Pulleine seized on Towne’s evident affection and homaging of Howard Hawks noirs, but neither the romance plotline nor the crime one is truly satisfying. If the latter doesn’t really dig in, that’s because Towne, always one for the ladies, is much more interested in the romance angle (his inspiration for Personal Best came not from a genuine fascination with female track events but because he was impressed by the Olympic team’s honed and toned bods exercising outside his house, per Peter Biskind in Easy Riders Raging Bulls – per his ex Julia Payne, he abandoned everything for the movie and “went off on this wild journey that never ended”). 

Kael suggested he wrote himself in Mac, “the writer-director’s simplified and idealised version of himself” which just happened to include being a “prodigious cocksman”. She accordingly read a parallel between Mac’s reluctant drug dealing and Towne’s own career in script doctoring (while alluding to Towne’s own penchant for readily sniffables). Certainly, his projection of his own life on his – infrequent – original screenplays even resulted in Towne proposing a third, never to be, mostly due to his own foibles, Jake Gittes outing called Gittes v Gittes, taking in the writer’s own divorce experiences.

Nick: Escalante is Carlos, you miserable shit.

So when Towne thinks he can palm us off with a highly unlikely and hoary conceit that Mexican federal police commandante Escalante, who has been working closely with Maguire for eight years, is in fact notorious drug lord Carlos… well, that’s a bit of a stretch, to say the least. But he isn’t really concentrating on the believability of this plotline, and besides, he’s struck gold in having Russell and Walsh as sparring partners, the former serviced with easily the best dialogue in the picture. 

Nick: It will make messy headlines. At least the CIA does it on purpose.

Russell is clearly enjoying himself, playing someone who’s a “bad boy” but also pretty smart – certainly, more so than any of his colleagues – with a great scene early on where, having been lured to a bust attended by Mac – and making sure it proceeded no further – he walks in and tips a tray of coffees all over Maguire, snarling “I don’t grow weeds in my back yard so I can pull ’em”. Nick isn’t an especially great guy – he’s the sort you absolutely would not leave your girlfriend alone with – but he earns points simply for the cocky swagger Russell lends him; Kurt can only do so much with some of the romantic subplot dialogue (his speech to Jo Ann – “You’re not like me. You’re honest, kind and principled” – only gets by relative to some of his co-stars’ even soggier dialogue), but in any given scene, he tends to emerge with the most credibility.

Where this slack structuring leads is a slightly unlikely climax of Maguire attempting to cover his errors by killing Mac (perhaps it would have been better – certainly truer to life – if there had been knowing government complicity with the Mexican drug lord) and getting shot in the back by Nick. By this point, we’ve spent some time with Carlos, and… well, as ferocious and uncompromising drug lords go, he’s positively cuddly, playing ping pong with Mac and, yes, sure, intimating that Jo Ann needs to be permanently silenced, and trying to shoot Mac, but never in a manner that makes you believe he’s someone to fear palpably. Which further undermines the final act and underlines this isn’t where Towne’s head is at.

Nick: No, if Carlos is back in town, Mac’s back in business.

Which is the romantic triangle. Something I hadn’t recalled is that Mel has no mullet in Tequila Sunrise. I think I must assume the stretch from Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome to Bird on a Wire (there’d be returns for Lethal Weapon 3 and – kind of – Braveheart) was Gibson at his most ingloriously ’80s in hair, but Sunrise has him looking quite presentable. Which is good, because you’re supposed to see Mac as, without question, the guy Jo Ann should go for, and  what little character nourishment he’s served amounts to the height of blandishments. 

Nick: Violent? No, I doubt that. Unless, of course, he doesn’t like your lasagne.

He’s got a grubbing ex (so he was right to be rid of her) and he’s a devoted dad. He’s really trying to go straight but “Nobody wants me to quit”. Of course, being Mel, Mac also has wild-eyed “I could do it” moments of threatening others, and he hits the bottle several times (once, with Julia; they were reputedly both actually drunk, but Mel was in his nine-beers-before-breakfast period at that time). But mostly, Mac’s on the side of the angels, in a remotely sketched-in way. Pulleine had it that his hero is “absorbed all the more comfortably into a bland homogenised realm of fantasy” through making Mac an ex-dealer but bound by no discernible sense of reformation or code.

Jo Ann: I don’t date the customers Nick, especially when they drive 50k cars and always pay in cash.

Which makes him simpatico with Jo Ann, as Pfeiffer, thanks to her patented glacial beauty and smouldering at every turn, very nearly gets away with a particularly contrived part (Kael thought she was outstanding – “If she weren’t a vision, the picture would crash” – in a “a priggish vacuous ideal-woman role”). She’s introduced as whip-smart brassy confidence, entirely getting the better of Nick as he attempts both to prise information and woo her; he might try to provoke her – “You are kind of letter perfect” – but when she comes back, telling him his “Lips get stuck on your teeth” and announces she’ll get coffee, you hope Towne might be shooting for something intricate and involved. Alas, it instantly evaporates when the roof springs a leak and they end up snogging in a puddle. 

From there, Jo Ann’s subjected to the director’s fanciful whims – Pfeiffer, notably, did not get on with Towne – a soft touch for Mac being a dad, her maternal interest sprung, infuriated by Nick’s “betrayal”, and getting all hot and heavy for an ultra-montage steamy sexy sax scene – the sax courtesy of David Sanborn – just begging for a Naked Gun parody (we also learn their sexy time went on for four hours; this IS Mel, after all). By the time she’s flagrantly ignoring Nick telling her Carlos wants her killed and so putting herself in harm’s way, even Pfeiffer can’t do much, Jo Ann having lost all agency that doesn’t relate to being buffeted by the men in her life.

Jo Ann: All you really care about is arresting Mac.

As much as there’s some great Towne dialogue here, there’s some so ripe you have to open the windows and leave the room. Lines like “You want to fuck your friend, fuck him, not me” and “Just lookin’ at you hurts more” (Mac in response to Jo Ann worrying about his bruises). Kael liked the latter, and when she suggested “the picture may have a particular erotic appeal for women”, it comes across more as a confession than anything, attesting to both its “trashy shamelessness” and “seductive panache”, empty at the centre but “a lusciously silly movie. It has an amorous shine”: “By rational standards, the movie is flimsy and stupid, but by romantic standards it’s delectable”. 

Given her “insight” it’s ironic that she suggested of Towne, “his understanding of how movies work for audiences lightens this movie, keeps it happy”; the picture ends with Mac and Jo Ann reuniting in the waves, benignly overseen by Nick. Per Biskind, James Toback (#himtoo) said Kael told her “Towne sent me the script, I told him what to do, gave him advice, he didn’t listen to me, and fucked it up”, but since her Tequila Sunrise review is (relatively) a thumbs up, this seems a little suspect.

Where I’d come out entirely in Tequila Sunrise’s favour is avowing for it as a gorgeous-looking movie, DP Conrad Hall making the proceedings a pleasure to behold. No, it can mask that the storytelling rather splutters and wheezes, but that shot of silhouetted Mac and Nick sitting on swings talking, with an orange sunset behind them is really THE moment of the movie, the selling point that goes with the title. Also of note: there’s an appearance from Gabriel Damon as Mac’s son, instantly recognisable as Robocop 2’s evil demon child Hob. Howard is on good form as super sniffer snitch, having just come off Full Metal Jacket.

Why’s it called that? Chinatown had to be explained against Towne’s protests, so the most we get here is Mac with a pitcher full of the ubiquitous drink. Well, that and Hall’s glorious sun(sets). I’m a little surprised to see that Tequila Sunrise was a hit,  perhaps because it only did so-so business in the US; it seems that, worldwide, it was only $15m shy of Lethal Weapon’s tally, making it a sound business decision for all concerned, if not perhaps critically (Russell, in particular – a veritable Dennis Quaid – could boast a string of flops or underperformers since the double whammy of Escape from New York and The Fox and the Hound in ’81, with only the support in Silkwood to suggest otherwise; he’d be wise enough to then team with Sly for a hit the following year). As for Towne, financial security, if not critical, would be a cert for the next decade as the go-to-guy for Tom Cruise script work.

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