In the opening of TEQUILA SUNRISE, Mel Gibson as “Mac” McKussic comes to a motel with a guy and a briefcase full of coke for one of those business transactions that guys with briefcases full of coke have at hotels. One of the guys who comes to meet him is Nick Frescia (Kurt Russell), talking cocky, hair all slicked back. Mac immediately knows that Nick is a cop so he talks his way out of the room and makes a run for it, doing a parkour-like swing from a balconly, nimbly hopping fences, ducking under a freeway overpass, trudging through water, dodging police searchlights.
But this is not gonna be an action film. Written and directed by Robert “China” Towne (his second movie as director), it’s a smart, unformulaic story of romance, friendship, crime and police work, all of them compromised. As we come to find out, Nick and Mac are life long friends, and Nick, although not otherwise corrupt, seems to manipulate cases to prevent his old buddy from getting busted. He’s the good guy, but honestly he should’ve been fired years ago. Luckily his rival in the office is the late, great and easy to hate character actor J.T. Walsh.
There’s a great scene where Nick comes into Walsh’s office right after the guy with the tray full of water cups for all the officers sitting around listening to the wire tap. At first Nick acts like he’s there to listen in, then suddenly he flies off the handle, flipping the whole tray over and onto Walsh, yelling at him. The other officers remain calm, don’t intervene, just watch, and when Nick storms out they all make eyes at Walsh. Maybe they’re waiting to see what his reaction will be, but I think they believe he brought it on himself. This will be a reoccurring thing in the movie, the other people in the office looking non-plussed when guys are screaming at each other.
There’s a question of whether Mac has really gone clean or if he’s selling drugs again. He keeps telling everybody he quit, but he might be lying. He does regular person work and lives out of a trailer. It’s an Airstream though, not the same kind of trailer he has in LETHAL WEAPON.
Meanwhile, you kinda try to decide if Nick is okay or if he’s just a dick. He kinda sits on the fence for that one. But of course it’s hard not to like Russell. According to a Sports Illustrated article, Russell based his style on the basketball coach Pat Riley. Weirder, the same article claims that Towne initially wanted Riley to play the character. That seems kinda weird, since he had never acted (other than a cameo as himself in a 1972 Columbo episode) and was in the middle of his famous back-to-back championship seasons coaching the Lakers. So I don’t know about that one.
Well, they didn’t get the basketball coach, but they got Budd Boetticher, director of THE TALL T, to play a judge. So that’s pretty good.
The main theme is the murky line between friend and enemy. Here’s Nick kind of helping Mac, kind of trying to catch him. Kind of working with Walsh, kind of trying to screw him over. And there’s Mac and Carlos, the higher up drug dealer the cops are really after, played by another died-too-young-bad-guy, Raul Julia, somehow predicting how to do an imitation of Guillermo Del Toro. Of course there are times when Carlos and Mac are at odds with each toher and get into some cold-blooded shit, but the rest of the time I don’t think they’re always fakin their friendship. They’re buds. Hangin out, drinking, laughing, Carlos singing opera.
Walsh thinks he’s friends with Carlos too. It’s weird.
The main point of contention between all these pairs of buds is Italian restauranteur Jo Ann Vallenari, played by Michelle Pfeiffer. It’s not that she’s some Yoko Ono driving a wedge between them, it’s just that she’s gorgeous and self-assured and they all misinterpret her in different ways. At various times she’s mistaken for an accomplice or an informant. Two of the men want to protect her, two want to hurt her to get at the other two. She’s caught in the middle of all this shit and she didn’t do anything except fall in love with one of them.
Rather than a love triangle I guess it’s what the title says, it’s a Tequila Sunrise. Mac’s gotta be the tequila, right? ‘Cause he’s trouble. Then I guess I’d go with Nick for the natural, normal orange juice because Jo Ann has got to be the sweet grenadine layer. And they mingle but don’t mix. Three layers in one glass.
The plot gets kinda complex but for me it’s not really a strong narrative movie. It doesn’t feel like it has much drive to it until the end, I really wasn’t sure if it was even supposed to be going anywhere. It’s mostly about watching these characters, so luckily it’s really well cast. Gibson in particular really shows his mix of charm and mania. Mostly the first one, but there is always a sense of danger with him. Even when he’s not a cop he’s a loose cannon.
And it doesn’t hurt that the movie looks great on blu-ray. The cinematographer is Conrad L. Hall, who did COOL HAND LUKE, IN COLD BLOOD and ROAD TO PERDITION. Lots of strong lighting, characters in shadows or silhouetted in front of orange sunsets. Lots of California sun. It has sort of a timeless feel to it that made it hard for me to place in the ’80s or ’90s. Towne avoids datedness in the clothes, hairstyles, settings… the one exception is the music. Shoulda gone for something old. Instead we have a hot tub sex scene set to smooth jazz.
But I forgive it. Not a bad movie.