A luscious concoction that packs a subtle punch, Tequila Sunrise lives up to its name. Filtered through the beach-front haze of Los Angeles, an orange sun drenches the screen with a warm glow; the gorgeous Michelle Pfeiffer adds a grenadine blush of beauty; and a double shot of Mel Gibson and Kurt Russell provides the tequila kick. But the Hollywood mastermind who mixed the ingredients, Robert Towne, has written and directed a movie that is far more than the sum of its parts. On the surface, it is a slick intrigue about a cop, a drug dealer and a beautiful woman. Yet with Towne, who wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for the 1974 detective classic Chinatown, nothing is quite the way it seems. Exploiting and exploding Hollywood convention, Towne’s new movie darts through a minefield of potential clichés
and comes out unscathed. Witty, seductive and unpredictable, Tequila Sunrise is so arresting that it demands to be seen again even before it is over.
The movie arrives with some high expectations attached to it. As a writer,
Towne, 52, is a Hollywood legend. His Chinatown script has become a model for Hollywood gurus who attempt to teach the art of screenwriting. He also worked on the scripts for such classics as Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather and Shampoo. But Towne’s only previous directing attempt, 1982’s Personal Best, failed to have the impact of his previous work.
With Tequila, he has created a lighthearted counterpart to the dark vision of Chinatown.
The story is not as strong—the plot’s final payoff seems counterfeit. But, like Chinatown, it is a tightly contained detective melodrama about love, conspiracy and betrayal. Once more, Towne has the audience’s sympathies shifting like quicksilver among the main characters, who may or may not be who they say they are. And again, Los Angeles, where Towne grew up, serves not only as the story’s setting, but as a paradigm for a prevailing theme of corrupt beauty.
In a way, Tequila is both a product and a portrait of Hollywood. “Growing up in Los Angeles in general, and Hollywood in particular, life is always a matter of figuring out, ‘I wonder what he really meant by that?’ ” Towne explained in an interview last week. “There is always a disparity between appearance and reality, a pattern to be divined. And that automatically lends itself to a detective movie, a mystery or a melodrama.”
Tequila is the story of a drug dealer, Mac (Gibson), and a police detective, Nick (Russell), who have been best friends since high school but are stuck on opposite sides of the law. Nick has protected Mac in the past, but Nick’s humorless superior, Maguire ( J. T. Walsh), wants him to use his friend to track down the Latin American smuggler who is supplying him. And a Mexican narcotics agent (Raul Julia) surrounds Mac with an elaborate surveillance network. Turning the web of conflicting loyalties into a triangle is Jo Ann (Pfeiffer), the glamorous owner of an exclusive restaurant who becomes involved with both Mac and Nick. Love is undercut by distrust as the characters suspect each other’s emotional and professional motives.
Mac is anxious to get out of the drug business. But when Jo Ann asks, “Why don’t you just say no?” he replies, “Nobody wants me to quit.” In fact, Mac is under financial pressure from his ex-wife, who has threatened to take back custody of their son, who lives with Mac in a beach house. Meanwhile, the police want him to stay in the game so that they can catch his supplier. And the Latin American drug lord, who has been Mac’s friend since they once shared a Mexican jail cell, is begging him to make one last deal.
Although Towne employs some familiar conventions, he uses them in a most unconventional way. There are good cops and bad cops, a sleek speedboat and a smart sound track. But the music leans closer to jazz than rock. And, in contrast to TV’s Miami Vice, there are no orgies of ballistic violence, no big chase scenes, no monstrous villains. Tequila Sunrise is a movie driven by dialogue. And Towne’s dialogue is so sharply written—clever without sounding unnatural—that it demands an alert ear. There is a sense of eavesdropping on conversations that could be open to all manner of interpretation. When Nick questions Jo Ann about Mac’s frequent visits to the res-
taurant, he might be referring to drug deals, sexual habits or food preferences in asking if she ever “had to satisfy any personal requests.”
As Jo Ann, Pfeiffer strikes the same balance between casual vulnerability and sexual cunning that made her so arresting as a mafia moll in the recent movie Married to the Mob. Her scenes with both Nick and Mac smoulder with slow-fused desire—Gibson’s nonchalance neatly complements Russell’s intensity, and neither succeeds in stealing the movie from the other. It is Towne who steals the show. His camera captures visions of California dreaming, a beckoning shore of surfers and sunsets. But his script keeps pulling the viewer away from the mirage and back to the puzzling reality of the characters.
In creating Tequila Sunrise, Towne says, he tried to invest melodrama with an atypical style. “I wanted the kind of interest and structure of Chinatown,” he said, “but with the
surface lightness of Shampoo. I wanted a beautiful surface—weekends are made for Michelob, there’s a few kilos of coke in the back of the truck, but don’t worry, we won’t get hurt.” Added Towne: “We’ve seen enough gritty
realism in similar stories that an attractive setting almost makes it more real.” In the same way, Towne avoided the usual battle scenes between police and drug dealers. “If
you withhold the normal kind of car-chase violence,” he said, “and give the audience the feeling that everyone’s trying to be light and funny, then they start to think, ‘Jesus, something bad is going to happen because we haven’t seen it yet.’ ”
Although Towne says that his script originated as a fantasy, two longtime friends of his—a retired narcotics officer and a former drug dealer—served as consultants on the movie. “In real life,” he said, “cops and criminals know each other. In threatening situations, tough guys are always trying to lay off, because they know that otherwise they are going to end up killing each other.” Clear distinctions between heroes and villains no longer reflect American reality, according to Towne. “Ever since 1960, when [President Dwight] Eisenhower admitted that we spied on other countries and flew the U2 over Russia, we were no longer the good guy in the western who waited until the bad guy drew his gun.”
Initially, his script’s sympathetic portrayal of a drug dealer alarmed some studio executives. “They were worried about the nature of the character’s profession,” he said. “One Warner Brothers executive said, ‘Couldn’t he be something else, a guy in a numbers racket or something?’ I explained that it’s not about drugs. It’s about the disparity between appearance and reality.” And that disparity, which Hollywood does its best to ignore, is where Towne’s art begins.
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