"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Saturday, March 19, 2022

Tequila Sunrise

Robert Towne needed a box office hit. By 1987, the legendary Hollywood screenwriter, who rose to fame in the 1970s with the likes of The Last Detail (1973) and Chinatown (1974), was in director’s jail after his debut, Personal Best (1982), flopped at the box office and he went through a messy legal battle against studio executive David Geffen. He was trying to get his second directorial effort, Tequila Sunrise (1988), off the ground and knew he’d need bankable movie stars in the lead roles. He managed to secure Mel Gibson, Michelle Pfeiffer and Kurt Russell who were all coming off successful high-profile hits with Lethal Weapon (1987), The Witches of Eastwick (1987) and Overboard (1987), respectively. They jumped at the opportunity to work with someone such as Towne, drawn to his well-written screenplay. The end result is a gorgeously shot neo-noir with a love triangle that tests the friendship between two long-time friends on opposite sides of the law.
Dale “Mac” McKussic (Gibson) is a high-end drug dealer that is supposedly retired even though Nick Frescia (Russell), head of narcotics for Los Angeles County, runs into him at a drug deal. They are friends from way back and so Nick lets him go before the bust goes down, however, Mac knew it was coming and got rid of the drugs. One gets the feeling from the casual way they interact with each other that they’ve crossed paths many times before this incident. Mac escapes and just makes his late reservation at his favorite posh restaurant run by Jo Ann Vallenari (Pfeiffer), who catches the eye of both him and Nick. The rest of the film plays out a twisty cat and mouse game as Nick is torn between busting his friend and trying to save him while Mac is torn between doing one last drug deal and his love for Jo Ann – the person that puts their friendship to the test. As the film progresses, various characters’ true motivations come into focus and we see if Mac is smart enough to stay one step ahead of the Columbian drug cartel he works for, the DEA and hold on to Jo Ann.

All three lead actors exude sex appeal like crazy and part of the thrill of watching Tequila Sunrise is how these three movie stars interact with one another, breathing life into Towne’s wonderful prose. Michelle Pfeiffer’s Jo Ann is no damsel in distress. She’s a strong woman who easily holds up to questioning early on from federal agents who grossly underestimate her fortitude as evident in a beautifully acted and written scene where Jo Ann expertly turns the tables on the Feds to Nick’s bemusement. She’s suave and knows how to deal with her classy clientele but isn’t snobby either. With her beautiful smile, Pfeiffer makes Jo Ann very charismatic and sexy. It is easy to see why Mac and Nick find her so alluring. In turn, she is drawn to Nick’s charisma and Mac’s vulnerability.

With his slick, Pat Riley hairdo and shark grin, Kurt Russell’s Nick is a super confident lawman that is great at his job as he is very perceptive and savvy, which comes from years of experience and knowing what goes on in his own backyard. The actor gives his character just the right amount of cockiness so that he doesn’t come across as arrogant. This plays well off J.T. Walsh’s humorless federal agent intent on busting Mac regardless of Nick’s friendship with him. Russell has a wonderful scene with Pfeiffer where Nick comes clean and explains why he got romantically involved with Jo Ann and the cocky fa├žade comes down to reveal a brutally honest person not afraid to be vulnerable in front of her. He didn’t just get close to her to get close to Mac. He genuinely loves her and is willing to put all his cards on the table. Russell shows an impressive range in this scene but, like Jo Ann, you’re still not quite sure if he is 100% genuine and not playing an angle.
Mel Gibson’s laidback drug dealer is an excellent counterpoint to Russell’s gregarious lawman. Mac plays things close to the vest and Gibson gives little away which keeps us guessing as to how his character is going to evade the cops and not get killed by his South American counterparts. His performance may not be as flashy but it has a brooding intensity that is fascinating to watch. He can go back and forth between showing Mac’s day-to-day routine (work at his legit job and hang out with his son) and the aspects of his drug dealing trade and show how they inform his character.
The always reliable Arliss Howard is excellent as one of Mac’s drug contacts who is constantly trying to get him to do another drug buy but he’s savvy enough to know that this guy is bad news. Howard’s character comes across as amiable enough but it isn’t too hard to figure out his character is probably an informant trying to set up Mac. He’s a little too eager to do business and this ultimately tips his hand.

The great Raul Julia shows up partway through as the DEA’s Mexican counterpart but with a secret agenda of his own. The actor looks like he’s have all kinds of fun with his role, breaking out into song on two separate occasions for no reason at all, taking over the scene for a few seconds. He really gets to sink his teeth into the role once his character’s true identity is revealed.

Character actor extraordinaire, J.T. Walsh is excellent as a slimy DEA agent that immediately butts heads with Nick who is much smarter and has no problem rubbing the man’s nose in it. Walsh is a master of simmering rage, glowering constantly as his character is constantly outsmarted and proven wrong.
Tequila Sunrise is beautifully shot by the great cinematographer Conrad Hall (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) as evident from the stunning sunset featured in the background of a scene where Nick and Mac are captured in silhouette talking on the beach. It’s an excellent scene as the two men sniff each other out to figure out what the other knows and to tell each other to back off in so many words. We get a real indication of what’s at stake and it’s not just their friendship but potentially Mac’s life if he doesn’t play his cards exactly right as he’ll either get busted or killed.

Robert Towne based the Tequila Sunrise screenplay on the courtship of his wife. In the mid-1980s, he frequented chef Piero Selvaggio’s Valentino restaurant in Santa Monica. He would arrive late and talk with Selvaggio’s wife Luisa. She would end up leaving her husband for Towne. At one point, he moved to Paris to help Roman Polanski on the script for Frantic (1988) and met producer Thom Mount. He told him about his script for Tequila Sunrise and after reading it took it to Warner Bros. The studio agreed to do it if Mount could attract a movie star. Mount and Towne approached Harrison Ford while he was making Frantic with Polanski and he agreed to do it but as they got closer to principal photography he pulled out as he didn’t think he could play Mac.
Towne liked Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon and approached him about playing Mac. He flew to Australia to meet with the actor who asked him, “How do you feel about actors watching dailies?” to which Towne replied, “Fine,” and he agreed to do it. Mac was based after “one fellow in particular who was in that line of work, and who was experiencing the same painful difficulty of extricating himself from it,” Towne recalled. He wrote the role of Nick with Kurt Russell in mind and on then-L.A. Lakers head coach, and close friend, Pat Riley, while also being inspired by a close friend who was an undercover narcotics cop for the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. He initially wanted Riley to play the part because of the way he “very carefully holds himself together – his necktie tight, his hair slicked back – so that he looks like he’ll never come unglued, he never seems stressed.” Riley turned it down and Alec Baldwin was considered before Towne decided to go with Kurt Russell who he introduced to Riley and proceeded to adopt his look. Towne saw Michelle Pfeiffer in Alan Alda’s Sweet Liberty (1986) and liked the “disparity between public and private behavior” in the role and cast her as Jo Ann.
Tequila Sunrise was financed independently by Mount with a negative pick-up for Warner Bros. It was only Towne’s second directorial effort, the first being Personal Best, which was a notoriously difficult shoot that resulted in the filmmaker liberating the negative of the picture while David Geffen said he stole it. The studio had to step in and make peace between the two men. As a result, Mount wanted to surround Towne with seasoned crew members and hired Richard Sylbert to design Tequila Sunrise. He had worked with Towne previously on Chinatown and Shampoo (1975) and they were good friends. Sylbert had also worked as a studio executive and, according to Mount, “understood the process from top to bottom. So you were hiring, not a production designer, not even a co-producer, you were hiring like this Renaissance maniac who was your partner in the movie, in every way.”

To save money on the $38 million budget, Sylbert found a large, old empty warehouse, instead of a soundstage, in Santa Monica to house the production offices and build sets. For the look of the film, Sylbert chose the colors of the Tequila Sunrise drink and the Los Angeles sunset – gold, orange and red. According to Mount, “Richard understood that the drink was the color key from the very beginning.” Sylbert based Jo Ann’s restaurant on Valentino’s and Matteo’s, an Italian restaurant in West L.A. It was built in the warehouse over eight weeks. He also helped design the menu and chose the cuisine. Towne even brought in Giuseppe Pasqualato, a former chef at Valentino’s to cook on set, which also had a functioning bar.
Filming began in February 1988 in the South Bay section of L.A. and lasted 68 days. Ten days in, cinematographer Jost Vacano was fired as his gritty, realistic style was not the tone Towne was after – rather a more romantic vibe. He called Conrad Hall, his first choice that was nixed by the producer, and within 24 hours was on the set.
Tequila Sunrise received mixed to negative reviews from critics at the time. Roger Ebert gave the film two-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, "Tequila Sunrise is an intriguing movie with interesting characters, but it might have worked better if it had found a cleaner narrative line from beginning to end. It’s hard to surrender yourself to a film that seems to be toying with you." In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, "Here the problem seems to be the fatal collaboration of a good writer with a director who wasn't strong or overbearing enough to pull him up short. The movie has the fuzzy focus of someone who has stared too long at a light bulb." The Los Angeles Times' Sheila Benson wrote, " It’s enough to send you out of the theater thirsty. Unfortunately, it sends you out hungry too, for a whole movie to offset this upscale grazing." In his review for the Washington Post's Hal Hinson wrote, "In Tequila, the divisions between business and pleasure, love and friendship break down, and the breakers...do it beautifully, with sweet talk, tough talk and hot kissing."

Tequila Sunrise was the box office success Towne needed but he didn’t direct another film for ten years – Without Limits (1998). He kept busy, though, thanks to a lucrative partnership with Tom Cruise, contributing several screenplays for the movie star in the 1990s, including Days of Thunder (1990), The Firm (1993), and Mission: Impossible (1996). Tequila Sunrise is a fascinating battle of wills. We have three highly intelligent people trying to figure out each other’s motives. It becomes complicated when mixed with emotions as a love triangle develops and clouds judgement. As one character says late in the film, “Friendship is all we have! We chose each other!” This is a film about friendship and loyalty. This is what motivates the three lead characters. Nick tries to save Mac from getting killed or busted as the drug dealer is his friend. Mac finds a way out of the drug dealing business as he loves Jo Ann. She loves Mac and doesn’t want him to get hurt. For a neo-noir it is lacking that fatalistic streak that runs through many of them. Towne is a little too enamored with the romantic aspects of his script to convey a convincing doomed protagonist that is a hallmark of the genre. Gibson’s Mac is a little too slick, a little too sure himself for anything really bad to happen to him and that is perhaps the film’s only glaring flaw in an otherwise wonderful, sun-drenched cinematic cocktail.
Lazar, Jerry. “Towne’s Country.” Chicago Tribune. December 4, 1988.
Mount, Thom. Audio Commentary. Tequila Sunrise DVD. 1988.
Sylbert, Richard & Sylvia Townsend. Designing Movies: Portrait of a Hollywood Artist. Frager. 2006
Turan, Kenneth. “Robert Towne’s Hollywood Without Heroes.” The New York Times. November 27, 1988.