|Kurt Russell and Michelle Pfeiffer in Tequila Sunrise (1988).|
Tequila Sunrise is a riff on the themes of friendship and betrayal put together by the legendary screenwriter Robert Towne (Shampoo, Chinatown, The Last Detail). Towne had directed only one previous picture, Personal Best – the most sensuous and perhaps the best movie ever made about athletic competition (the main characters are a pair of female pentathletes training for the 1980 Olympics who are also lovers) – in 1982. Tequila Sunrise is plotted with remarkable density and elegant fluidity, the film moves so fast, especially for the first three-quarters, that it makes your head spin. You come out feeling exhilarated and giggling with delight at the sun-soaked SoCal ambiance and the sexy, slightly absurd intensity of the romantic triangle at the movie’s center. It features juicy, glamorous star performances from Mel Gibson as Dale “Mac” McKussic, a dope dealer trying to go straight; Kurt Russell as Nick Frescia, his boyhood pal, now a narc; and Michelle Pfeiffer as Jo Ann Vallinari, the beautiful restaurateur they both fall for. All of this might not be much more than a first-class romantic melodrama from the forties would have offered – but it’s more than enough. In pure entertainment terms, the picture’s a knockout.
The story is complicated but not difficult to follow: as a writer, Towne has the gift of clarity, and he gets your mind racing to keep up with his Olympic narrative speed. Mac has been struggling to go legit; he sells ecologically sound irrigation systems. But with his ex-wife (Ann Magnuson) tapping him for cash, his stoned-out cousin Greg (Arliss Howard) drawing on his name to guarantee his own dope deals, and a long-term Mexican partner leaning on their friendship to put through another transaction for him, it’s been tough for him to move on. And now his lawyer, Andy Leonard (Arye Gross), has decided to try his hand at selling coke, and Mac, out of loyalty, goes along to see this novice doesn’t screw up and land in jail. That’s when Nick shows up, under cover, on the other end of the deal. He lets Mac go, claiming he never could have made the charge against him stick. But the FBI has sent in an investigator named Maguire (J.T. Walsh), who’s hungry to unearth the Mexican connection. He orders Nick to use his friendship with Mac to get information, offering, as incentive, to keep Mac out of federal court (which would mean a drastically reduced sentence). Considering the alternative, Nick can hardly refuse. But Maguire’s crass tactics repel him, and so does his ineptitude.
When Maguire tries to bulldoze Jo Ann, whose restaurant Mac frequents, to spy on him – he has her Italian chef hauled in on a rigged drunk-driving charge and then threatens to queer his application for a green card – she stands up to him, refusing to be intimidated, and Nick is impressed. Figuring anyone so sleekly self-possessed must have an angle, he tries to find out how much she knows about Mac’s business, and they become lovers. Then he enlists her to do what Maguire had in mind: spy on Mac, or at least pave the way so Nick can do the spying. Maguire’s incompetent snitch has told him Mac’s planning a party for his connection, which he’s hired Jo Ann to cater; when it turns out to be only a birthday bash for his kid, and the beach outside his home is littered with Feds, Mac confronts Jo Ann, who shamefacedly admits her part in it. Later she learns he got involved with Leonard’s coke sale in the hopes that Leonard – who is also Jo Ann’s lawyer – would give him the façade of respectability he needed to woo her. As she puts it to Nick, Mac has been engaged in business for romantic reasons, while Nick has been conducting a romance for business reasons.
For a long time, you think the movie is going to be about smooth, deceptive surfaces and hidden depths; every significant character surprises you, including Greg and Maguire and Escalanate (Raul Julia), the federale Maguire imports from Mexico to help him spring a trap for Carlos. (These three actors give surprising performances, too, especially Julia, who takes the in extremis humor he showed in Paul Mazursky’s Moon Over Parador and goes for broke with it.) Finally, however, the picture turns out to be shallower than you hope. When Towne removes all the shells, the revelation underneath is that all three protagonists are decent human beings: Mac is capable of romantic ardor and tremendous loyalty, Nick of selflessness and regret, and Jo Ann is, in Nick’s words, “honest and kind and principled.” That is, there’s a pure surface underneath all those tricky angles. But Towne’s heroic depiction of these three main characters is part of what’s so appealing about Tequila Sunrise and it goes hand in hand with the impossibly sexy three-sided romance. This is a retro-forties love story with a magnificent late-eighties sheen. Designed by Richard Sylbert, costumed by Julie Weiss, shot by Conrad Hall in a shimmering lemon-and-orans palette, it’s visually like a noir-ish companion to Personal Best, which shares its unbridled affection for the corrupted graciousness of California lifestyles. (A supreme light-and-dark L.A. contrast would be a double bill of Tequila Sunrise and Altman’s The Long Goodbye.)
I love the dialogue – the way Towne advances the plot and illuminates the characters in half a dozen different ways when it seems all he’s doing is putting natural phrases into the characters’ mouths. (It’s hard to think of another screenwriter who’s so vividly aware of the way people really talk to each other.) But there’s an overt romanticism to the exchanges between Jo Ann and Nick, and Jo Ann and Mac, and even Mac and Nick, that needs to be underplayed, finessed, and under Towne’s direction the three stars have a glancing, nuanced way with the lines that transforms them into wonderful pas de deux. And there are phrases that stay in your head afterwards, like bits of Casablanca do, or the best Bogart-Bacall scenes in To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, or some of the lightly insinuating banter of Astaire and Rogers. When aggressive, magically alert Kurt Russell first approaches soft-spoken Mel Gibson, with his always-unexpected wide-eyed gentleness, in Jo Ann’s restaurant, the two actors play a delicate jazz duet, grooving off each other’s energies. And because the dialogue is so subtly tuned, most of their communication – their unspoken appeals to each other’s friendship, each man’s dismay at how the other has turned out – is suggested in the lines yet essentially subtextual. Towne accomplished the same feat in Personal Best, where he and his actors kept you so alive to the body language that you scarcely noticed how deft and telling the verbal exchanges were.
Pfeiffer’s come-on scenes with the two men are completely distinctive from each other. With Frescia, she makes the first, daring move, declaring he’s the kind of man who doesn’t trust any woman he hasn’t slept with, and the give-and-take between them is playfully erotic. With Mac, though, she holds back; she comes to see him, demanding that he be straight with her about his business, and she’s flabbergasted when he declares his love – she isn’t prepared for his courtliness, or his modesty. While she feels a strong attraction to Nick, Mac’s emotional openness brings out her devotion. Besides, once she’s realized how Nick’s manipulated her, she stops being able to respond to him. There’s a dynamite scene between these two when Nick finds her at the restaurant during off hours: she’s mourning the death of their romance (Pfeiffer physicalizes her character’s grief superbly). Nick strips himself down for her, revealing his shame at the way he’s acted, admitting that he got the wrong impression of her based on her style and what he’d dug up about her. But all she hears is that in addition to using her, he’s snooped into her past and demands to know what else he knows about her. Pfeiffer’s mix of piquancy and vulnerability is wondrous here, and I’m not sure Russell – so terrific in so many roles – has ever given a finer reading of a scene.
The picture is full of marvelous scenes that I can’t describe without giving too much of the plot away; Towne and his editor, Claire Simpson, link every strand to the same hair’s-breadth narrative mechanism. The movie may not go deep, but its surfaces glitter with Towne’s sureness of touch and his feeling for the way people interact. He’s a master at getting tiny shifts in tone and mood, at replicating the way people watch each other, at uncovering invisible, precarious balances – and no one except Altman and Scorsese has ever been so skillful at capturing the tenor of a drunken or stoned exchange. A number of misfortunes, documented in a series of interviews Towne gave before the film’s release, kept him from releasing anything in the six and a half years between Personal Best and Tequila Sunrise. It was a joyous comeback. Unhappily, though, his only two subsequent directorial efforts, Without Limits (about the runner Steve Prefontaine) and Ask the Dust (based on the John Fante novel filmmakers had been trying without success to adapt to the screen for decades), were disappointments, and now, in his early eighties, he seems less and less likely to direct again.
– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.