Tequila Sunrise (Towne, 1988)

Why can’t Robert Towne just write a script as good as Chinatown every time he ventures himself out there?  Better yet, why didn’t he just retire after Chinatown?  Looking at his filmography the only thing I’d really miss is his uncredited work on the Missouri Breaks.

So the script for Tequila Sunrise isn’t great.  But it’s actually not that bad.  What is that bad, however, is Towne’s direction in this film.

Tequila Sunrise features a late-80s all-star cast.  Semi-retired drug dealer Mac (Mel Gibson) and his friend/pursuer Nick (Kurt Russell) vie for bragging rights, best hair, and worst sex scene with Jo Ann (Michelle Pfeiffer).  Here’s a hint: they come out even in two of the above and Kurt Russell wins the third.  I’m not telling which.

There are a lot of twists and turns in Tequila Sunrise, an awesomely audacious performance by Raul Julia as a cop/drug-dealer, and lots of silhouetted sunrise/set shots.  None of these can save the film from playing as a farce.  At least the plot is somewhat plausible, but there is one giant loose end that bugged me at the end.

Tequila Sunrise is a film that tells its viewer this: if you own a hot-tub, occasionally slip out of your fake-American accent, and can burst out of water with the ferocity of Old Faithful, the odds that you sleep with Michelle Pfeiffer are looking pretty good.

I’m not one to concentrate on love-making scenes in films.  They can be awkward to write, more awkward to shoot and direct, and equally as awkward to edit and screen.  Plenty are unnecessary, some unfortunate, and others tasteful.  The love scenes in Tequila Sunrise are actually partially necessary, and completely, absolutely, beyond-the-shadow-of-a-doubt ludicrous.

What’s worse than a shot of two people kissing that slowly dissolves out…into the bedroom?  Not much.  Mid-dissolve I’m just thinking, ‘please don’t let the first thing I see be a pillow.’  Luckily it wasn’t.  It was Kurt Russell’s forearm.  Okay, so a sloppy and cliche transition.  I can deal with that.  The love triangle is after all, a pretty crucial part of the plot.  Here’s what I can’t deal with:

Later in the film Gibson’s Mac and Pfeiffer’s Jo Ann have a “moment.”  So one thing leads to another and before we can say…anything really…they’re in the hot-tub.  I’d completely forgive Towne if this was just another dissolved, implied scene, but no.  Oh no.  Not at all.  Instead, Towne places his camera low.  We can tell that we’re somewhere near the hot-tub.  But where are Mel and Michelle?  They’re nowhere to be seen.  Until…they both literally, and in slow-motion, come shooting upwards out of the water in a lustful(?) embrace.  They’re like people tasting air for the first time in days.  Or dolphins.  Were they having a contest to see who could hold their breath longer?  Did they get lost in the hot-tub?  If so, why are they naked?  I’m so confused!

Worse than this: Towne does it twice.  I couldn’t decide whether to puke or laugh.  One of the single worst “trying to be serious but turns out absurd” moments in a film I’ve seen in some time.  The fact that there are also sloppy ends to scenes, awkward beats, and a general attempt to get a cool atmosphere that comes off as hackneyed and comical makes this a pretty awful film.

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About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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4 Responses to Tequila Sunrise (Towne, 1988)

  1. Harry says:

    Tough but true words on the direction. Can’t say it is one of my favorite movies but maybe my favorite from 1988. Actually just looked up 1988 films, and this isn’t even in the top twenty for me. “She’s having a Baby” is much better. Anyway with TQ, I have always been a fan of JT Walsh and Arye Gross and I think Raul Julia puts in a good performance. To your point about the direction, especially within the “special” scenes, I think it does add some humor maybe unintended but its there. Moving in slow, cat walks by…looking through the cover. I especially like the cops staked out, loosening his tie, and his partner wanting to get the binoculars to see. “When is she going to leave?” Cliche, but enjoyed, and the music steals the show. You didn’t like the shot reflecting from the water? or just couldn’t get past the old faithful scene…ah well. Will keep my eyes open for a She’s Having a Baby post.

  2. dcpfilm says:

    Love JT and Raul, for sure. The music is hilarious. I feel like Towne had no idea what it was actually like to be cool in the late 80s (actually, I don’t think anyone did), took a bunch of ideas he saw on TV shows and his random jaunts on the beach and threw them together. It’s such a mess.

    She’s Having a Baby…coming soon?

  3. Donal says:

    The most absurd thing about this commentary is the lack of context. When view today by a modern audience, is it absurd? Certainly, but it also made 5x it’s budget at the box office. Sure, it was critically panned. Why? Could it perhaps be due to the overly high expectations placed upon the stars and the crew. And as for the commentary about the visual imagery, remember this film was nominated by the academy for cinematography. Considering the “era” which it was filmed and released, the film is no more laughable than music or fashion from the same time period. Twenty five years from now, most people will be mocking the films of today as well.

    • dcpfilm says:

      Thanks for the comment – it’s much appreciated. Judging a film by its box office success and Academy nominations would be antithetical to this particular forum. I’m a fan of Conrad Hall’s work, but he overplayed his hand here.

      To chalk all of this up to its late-80s era is also to overlook the myriad works (film, music, fashion, etc) that succeed despite their adherence to an aesthetic sign-of-the-times. There are plenty of films released in 1988 that aren’t such easy targets in the same way that there are plenty of films released in 1927 that aren’t such easy targets.

      Okay, so this blog posts relies heavily on a bit of unfair mockery. But still, the majority of that mockery is heaped upon Towne’s direction, which I think falls short every time he directs (though I have yet to see Without Limits).

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