Most romantic films #8: Tequila Sunrise (1988)

I know, I know… but yeah, it’s still a great romantic film.

After all, 1988’s Tequila Sunrise features Mel Gibson and Michelle Pfeiffer at the height of their popularity, supported by Kurt Russell, Raul Julia, and the fabulous character actors J.T. Walsh and Arliss Howard. Both Julia and Walsh have since died, and watching this film, I realize how much I miss them in contemporary films!

Bad stuff: watching it now, post-Gibson glow, I can see the unevenness of the screenplay, where plot jumps signal important scenes being cut out. The film was written and directed by Robert Towne, whose best work was obviously Chinatown (script) — and this is no Chinatown.  It is undoubtedly lighter fare, built on the sex appeal and on-screen chemistry of the two stars. Again, watching it now, I am certain that the film was originally planned as darker, perhaps even edging toward the nuances and paranoia of Chinatown.

After all, the hero Mac (Gibson) is an ex-dope dealer (cocaine) who has “retired” but is still finishing up business with Carlos, his supplier and friend — it’s strictly giving Carlos money Mac has been holding… but still, dude! Nick, Mac’s best friend and the head of narcotics for L.A.County (Russell), is working with the feds to close down drug traffic in town, and Mac is #1 target. Jo Ann (Pfeiffer) is the half-owner and hostess of a chic restaurant, where Mac drops by… a lot. The feds think he’s doing business, but Nick figures out Mac has a crush on Jo Ann: cute! In order to find out what Mac is doing, Nick woos Jo Ann… all the way into bed. Through a series of misunderstandings and half-assed dating attempts, Jo Ann and Mac actually talk about more than appetizers and entrees… and figure out they’re attracted. Carlos comes to town to get his money, the feds focus on Mac, Nick works Jo Ann and Mac… and finally the lovers get it on. With the forces of the FBI, the DEA, and the Mexican Federales eavesdropping via binoculars and bugs.

I really think the film suffers from studio desires to make it more mainstream than Chinatown was, even in terms of the color-saturated brightness of the shots. Listening with your eyes closed, it is a story of the manipulations and, yes, ruthlessness of the authorities and the drug dealers, with Gibson and Pfeiffer caught in the middle.

Russell is underrated as an actor, perhaps because of his Disney beginnings. Here, he is sexy, manipulative, smart, cold, focused, vulnerable, deceitful, and loyal–the most complex character. Julia is, as always, brilliant, simply by knowing how to be present on camera; in this period, it is hard to steal a scene from Gibson, but Julia does, and seeing the pair as friends who chose each other, where the friendship is coming to a violent end, has the flavor of Mercutio and Romeo–not to overstate it. Again, a complex relationship the finished product only hints at in certain moments, sadly. Pfeiffer, too, is underrated as an actress, and here she delivers a “good girl” performance flavored by the obvious sophistication and intelligence of the scripted character: she is no heroine to be rescued, no powder puff, no pretty California girl in a pretty dress. My favorite line in the film? When Jo Ann says to Nick, “[Mac] has been engaged in his business for purely romantic reasons, while you have been engaged in romance for purely business reasons…. You want to fuck your friend? Fuck him, not me!”

In the end, it is a good film, if not a great one, and leaves me wanting a better film… but satisfied with the “romance” aspect of it. And I do love Chinatown.

(Originally intended to publish this on 9.6.11 and forgot all about it…)

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