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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Forgotten Gems: Good Morning Vietnam (*****) – When we were young and so alive

good-morning-vietnam

Good Morning, Vietnam – 1987

Director Barry Levinson
Starring Robin Williams, Forest Whitaker, J.T. Walsh, Bruno Kirby, Robert Wuhl, Tung Thanh Tran, Chintara Sukapatana, Noble Willingham, Richard Edson, Richard Portnow, Don and Dan Stanton
Screenplay Mitch Markowitz

The recent passing of Robin Williams was a shock to the world.  In a moment, millions of people clung to their favorite memory.  My own thoughts raced to Good Morning Vietnam.  It was a film that stood out for me in a year that had many great films (La Bamba, The Big Easy, Lethal Weapon, Hope and Glory, Matewan, Moonstruck, Predator, The Princess Bride, Raising Arizona, Robocop, Roxanne, Stakeout, The Untouchables, Wall Street to name a lot). This is a story that only could have been made with Williams as the center piece. In fact, the idea behind the story kicked around for several years (since M.A.S.H. neared its end in the late 70’s and early ’80’s) and it wasn’t until Williams found it, took the bare essentials and brought in his own people to dress it up a bit.

He really didn’t need that much help. After years of alternating between comedies and dramas, his skills were honed into an incredible combination of both in what appropriately became his first Academy Award nomination. Sure, it wasn’t a terribly complex in the story department. It boils down to a funny guy giving some relief to our boys serving overseas in a failing effort to carry out who knows what in Vietnam. There is a terror aspect that might have been more prevalent in the 80’s than the 60’s (not sure about that), and a couple of guys who are put off by him (more on them later) and a whole bunch more that come alive in his very presence. Kind of like the effect he had on all of us.

The story starts out in a monotone sea of sameness. Dan (not yet “The Man”) Levitan (Portnow)  with his droll delivery as DJ for the Armed Forces, is an indicator of what is wrong, but he is not what is wrong. Next thing we see, PFC Garlick (Whitaker) is on his way to pick up some new talent in the form of Williams’ Adrian Cronauer. Lesser actors would have tried to capture the screen immediately with condescending humor or wacky hi-jinks. Years of honing his dramatic talents made it easy for Williams to join the world in a manner befitting someone who knows that he is a star. It’s the subtle build up that makes it so perfect the first time he says those classic titular words.

 As Garlick, Forest Whitaker was in the early part of what has thus far been a stellar career.  His portrayal is as a perfect companion for Cronauer.  He’s there to serve, but he is not a fool, except when it comes to starting the jeep.  His chemistry with Williams allows the natural charisma for both to exude. walshwilliamsgmv

Two other late great actors gave stellar performances as the nemesis and minion.  Major Dickerson (Walsh) and 2nd Lt Hauk (Kirby) give a one-two punch as a pain in everyone’s ass.  Walsh, in particular, gives a performance that borders on lunatic with his wish to diminish Cronauer’s star.  His eyes gave an edge of evil that offer a real menace that counters the joy of the rest of the film.  Kirby had unique perspective as an actor.  He could be your friend who was unafraid to give you bad news (City Slickers, When Harry Met Sally) or here, he could be the unwitting minion with a heart in the right place, but his head up his ass.

Many of the best  moments of the film are watching Hauk’s reactions to Cronauer’s antics:

Lt. Steven Hauk: First of all, don’t make fun of the weather here, and don’t say the weather is the same all the time here. Because it’s not. In fact, it’s two degrees colder today than yesterday.
Adrian Cronauer: Two degrees colder, me without my muff.

Hauk

So many minor players in Good Morning, Vietnam have solid, respectable contributions.  Tran and Sukapatana present a respectable face on the native population that often appears as a backdrop to war stories.  Willingham provides a delightfully brash counter to Walsh and Kirby’s indignant postures.  Portnow and Wuhl round out Williams’ team of nice guys that, in lesser hands, would have offered token resistance for no good reason.  Instead, we get a full picture that shows Williams’ Cronauer as genuinely likable, instead of a caricature.

Which brings us back to Williams.  His was a wonderful, varied and courageous career.  In retrospect, this seems like a very safe film.  Vietnam films were the rage in the 80’s, and comedies were never so popular.  Comedies about Vietnam?  That only happened once, unless you count Full Metal Jacket.  The pursuit of this project was as courageous a choice as Williams had ever made.  It was his skill and charm that created a comedy institution that became formula for others (including Williams in Patch Adams) to follow.  His heart is genuine and his laughs come from a place so pure, it made the smiles in the exposition shots stick in your mind.  If I was in the hell that was War in Vietnam, Cronauer would have made my life better, moment to moment.  Like Williams could.good_morning_vietnam_2_robin_williams

Levinson was in the midst of a nice roll, with Tin Min preceding and Rain Man following this movie.  He had a respectable career, even if he never did reach the heights of this magnificent trio.  His skill is in the simplicity here.  He sits back and lets Williams follow his instincts, which by this point were flawless.

Good Morning Vietnam is my favorite Williams movie.  Even if it is not quite his best performance (Insomnia), this is the film I will always think of when he comes to mind.

(***** out of *****)