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.
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 façade 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Mount, Thom. Audio Commentary. Tequila Sunrise DVD. 1988.