Forgotten Gems: Tequila Sunrise (***1/2) is a Recurring Dream

Tequila Sunrise (1988)

Tequila Sunrise – 1988

Written and Directed by Robert Towne
Starring  Mel Gibson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kurt Russell, Raúl Juliá, J.T. Walsh

What most people remember about Tequila Sunrise is that the film is slick beyond imagining. Kurt Russell is literally playing the big screen version of Pat Riley, then coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. As Russell put it: “Riley’s look was right for this film because he was arrogantly confident but not offensive.”

In the midst of the exquisitely ornate look through the lens of Conrad Hall, Robert Towne makes an attempt  at telling a story in a fashion rarely used since. That style is a noir based on the two friends on the opposite side of the law while simultaneously competing for the affections of a dame. Two of the three leads (Gibson, Pfeiffer) were the biggest stars of the era. One can only guess, then, that the odd man out has to be the one that looks the coolest.

While in the midst of all of the glamour, the performance that steals the show is that of Raúl Juliá as Carlos, the primary target of the investigation of drug trafficking. That he is the lead investigator for the Mexican government would normally be a tough sell for anyone who wasn’t an entertainer of his caliber.

He charges through the film with a presence of one who truly lives in the moment. He knows the dangers that surrounds and he laughs (and sings) in its face. He captures every scene that he is in with a gravitas that none of the bigger names of the time had harnessed by that time.

This is not to say that the other actors don’t have much going on. Gibson Mac is all conflicted charm. The master of staccato gibberish gets to tell us that he is all but cornered into his role as drug dealer. He has many responsibilities, and even took the rap for his friend, leading him to spend years in the Mexican prison. Now he has a child that depends on him as well as his debt to Carlos. When he falls for Jo Ann (Pfeiffer) his die is cast and his guard is let down.

Nick (Russell) has been a guardian angel of sorts, picking his spots and making sure Mac is not there when the whip comes down. His efforts to use Jo Ann as an information source backfire as he starts to fall for her. Russell lays the ground work for the type of character he’s played many time since. He’s good to the right bad guys and bad to the right good guys. He talks tough and can take a shot of truth over the bow.

Jo Ann has enough of a backbone, she too can dish it when it’s necessary. Pfeiffer gives it her best, but her job is to be the dame. She has to be conflicted for (too short) a time, then get her life threatened a time or two and then wait for the explosions to end. The Bechdel test came into popular culture just three years earlier, so it’s no surprise this film fails it in spades. For what it’s worth, she makes a great silhouette of a character.

Towne is on form here as director, even if he succumbs to formula from the writing perspective. The film doesn’t really suffer, though, for the performances of the actors. The highly underrated Walsh does his usual yeoman’s work here as the butt of everybody’s scorn until it comes time to have the weight of all wrath fall on him.

As a fan of Russell, Walsh and Juliá, this film has plenty going for it beyond Hall. It’s debatable that people these days understand the gravitas of Gibson and Pfeiffer from this film alone. That’s okay though. The Oscar nominated cinematography by Hall is worth the price of admission, too. Most people don’t live on the beautiful California coast of the late 1980’s. It doesn’t get old from my seat here in the rains of November.

(***1/2 out of *****)

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