Tequila Sunrise (Blu-ray Review)3 Feb, 2014 By: Mike Clark
Stars Mel Gibson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kurt Russell, Raul Julia.
The Mel Gibson-Michelle Pfeiffer romantic angle works well enough assuming you are still able to watch Gibson in a romantic role without calling in the Jewish Defense League. But what I really like about writer-director Robert Towne’s half-lush/half-noirish take on the drug caper genre is the tension here between Kurt Russell’s just-promoted local narc and the Drug Enforcement Administration clod who has taken over Russell’s office — he played by its screen era’s foremost Mr. Dyspepsia: J.T. Walsh. The two actors’ abrasive scenes together here exhibit a more-than-surface nastiness regarding the Walsh character’s professional slow-on-the-uptake-ness, anticipating the all-out mutual malevolence between Russell and Walsh later on display in 1997’s super sleeper Breakdown.
Like Breakdown, this nine-year predecessor takes a familiar movie premise almost in mothballs and throws in some surprises, not the least of which finds — though it has nothing to do with plot-twisting — the great Western filmmaker Budd Boetticher cast in a cameo as a prominent old judge who pulls some strings for one of the story’s three principals. And these are: Gibson as a reformed drug dealer trying to stay out of his old trade; cop Russell, who maintains a kind of dangerous Wyatt Earp-Doc Holliday relationship with the former; and Michelle Pfeiffer as the upscale California restaurateur who gets caught in the middle — and literally so when she, who is otherwise fairly up-and-up, gets romantically involved with both.
Yet, the original sin here is the fact that Russell, in his previous life, avoided arrest for the same youthful indiscretion that landed Gibson on the road to crime. In other words, if you want to stretch it, this is Angels With Dirty Faces on the Pacific Coast — minus priests and the Dead End Kids but with Mexican dealers, better food thanks to Michelle and a sunrise you’d never be able to see in Angels’ New York City. Three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Conrad L. Hall gives it his all with the solar shots here, though this is one of those lower-priced Warner Blu-rays that isn’t totally on a par with the more ambitious renderings Warner has done (but, yes, it’s an inarguable improvement on the DVD version). There are very dark scenes in key places throughout the movie, and in terms of Hall’s sunrises, I’m not sure how much tequila was involved — though there are offhand references to the stuff here and there if you keep your eyes and ears amid the narrative.
Not that she’d been inconspicuous before, but 1988 was probably the breakthrough year for Pfeiffer with first this, then Jonathan Demme’s much beloved Married to the Mob (say, wouldn’t a Criterion of this, a la Something Wild, be nice?) and Dangerous Liaisons — which were then followed by The Fabulous Baker Boys in 1989, which got her just about every major best actress citation that year, other than the Oscar that went to Jessica Tandy for Driving Miss Daisy.
Like Jessica Lange and even Meryl Streep earlier in her career, Pfeiffer made a ton of movies where the critics were a few solar systems beyond the paying public in terms of responding to solid screen escapism. At one point, Warner issued a very nifty twofer pairing a standard DVD of Sunrise with 1997’s Gibson-Julia Roberts Conspiracy Theory — both of them star-power underbelly melodramas that were well received but perhaps not as much as they should have been at the time.