“Friendship is the only choice in life you can make that is yours!”
Steve and I went to see Tequila Sunrise at the Great Northern movie theater during the winter of 1988. It was appropriate that I was with my best friend to see this contemporary film noir from writer/director Robert Towne. Personally, I was expecting a taut thriller starring two cool, blue collar actors, and an hour and a half of gazing at one of the 80’s most gorgeous sex symbols. However, after the final credits had rolled and the Ann Wilson/Robin Zander power ballad, “Surrender to Me,” had concluded, I walked out of the cineplex struck by the message of friendship that Towne had made as the central theme of his movie.
Marketed as a suspenseful and a steamy romance, the real action in Tequila Sunrise came in the scenes between stars Mel Gibson and Kurt Russell. Their characters had grown up together in Los Angeles, but their lives took different career paths when they entered their twenties. Gibson is Dale “Mac” McKussic, a retired drug dealer who quit the game once his prepubescent son began asking questions about his line of work. Ashamed of being a criminal, Mac has become a legitimate businessman running an irrigation company. He’s doing his best to meet the demands of his ex-wife’s spending habits, while trying to convince just about everyone that he’s gone legit.
Russell is Nick Frescia, a rising star in the LAPD who’s just been promoted to running the narcotics department. With slick hair and expensive suits (modeled after then L.A. Lakers head coach, Pat Riley) Nick’s firsthand knowledge of Mac is being exploited by a DEA task force eager to put Mac in jail. The DEA also wishes capture a notorious kingpin known as Carlos, a man who has never been seen by U.S. agents. Carlos once saved Mac’s life in a Mexican prison and became his mentor in the world of crime. With Carlos supposedly coming to L.A. for a huge deal, the government dreams of bringing down both men at once.
Obviously, the fact that Mac and Nick appear to be on opposite sides of the law creates great tension between the two men. Yet they’ve managed to remain friends and you never get the sense that they actually hate each other. The lifelong bond between seems to be able to withstand crime, corruption, and even the love of a woman. That woman is Jo Ann Vallernari, owner of a trendy restaurant that Mac frequents. Initially the police believe that Mac is selling drugs in the restaurant. Nick takes one look at Jo Ann and realizes that Mac’s sole interest in the restaurant is the beautiful Jo Ann, who is played by the stunning and talented Michelle Pfeiffer.
The actress stirred the souls of so many men back in the 80’s and early 90’s. With her austere presence, but seemingly down to earth personality, Pfeiffer was like the attainable homecoming queen that most guys dreamed about. Even in a film like 1988’s Dangerous Liaisons (her very next project, for which she’d earn her first Academy Award nomination), when she was playing a virtuous, 18th Century noblewoman, we all thought we had a chance with her.
Towne and his Director of Photography, Conrad Hall, a legend in the industry who was behind the lens for such classics as In Cold Blood, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and American Beauty, patiently waited to fully reveal Pfeiffer to the movie audience. In the early moments of the first restaurant scene of Tequila Sunrise, we see ¾ rear shots of the actress, and a couple of reflections of her face. It isn’t until we first hear her speak that we get a luminous medium close-up of her. Softly lit, with those cool blue eyes and that charming smile, there’s no question why Michelle Pfeiffer was in the fantasies of so many young men in the late 80’s. I can only imagine that I nudged Steve when she first came on screen and gave him a look that said, “Damn.”
A love triangle forms between Mac, Jo Ann and Nick. However, it’s one of two love triangles in Tequila Sunrise. Just as Mac and Nick are both vying for Jo Ann’s affections, Nick and Carlos are both vying for the love of Mac. It’s the classic pull of new friends and old friends that play at Mac’s heart.
As I said, Carlos saved Mac’s life in a Mexican prison. As Nick admits to his DEA contact (played wonderfully by the late, JT Walsh), Mac got arrested for possession of drugs while the two of them were vacationing on a beach south of the border. The only reason Nick wasn’t pinched is because he was in the ocean at the time. Towne never comes right out and has Nick say that he secretly envies the relationship between Carlos and Mac, but the way Russell plays the role you recognize that envy in his narrow eyes and the tinge of jealousy in his voice.
This struggle between old and new really resonated with me in 1988, my first semester at college. I felt an undying loyalty to my oldest and closest friends from my youth, Steve and Matt. Yet I was off creating new relationships at Bowling Green State University. A pang of guilt gnawed at me whenever I felt closeness to any of my college buddies, as if bonding with those guys was in some way a betrayal to my old friends. Sadly, I believe it may have hindered some friendships in college.
Of course, this wasn’t a new problem, as I had experienced the same ridiculous feelings when Steve and I became close friends. I felt that I must always include Matt in our adventures. It took me a long time to understand that people experience a vast number of friendships that function for different reasons in our lives.
Besides the complexities of Towne’s story, the brilliant dialogue, and some excellent music selections (I actually own the soundtrack on LP), Tequila Sunrise is a film that holds up after twenty years. Indeed, besides some questionable costumes Pfeiffer was asked to wear, the movie could have been made this year. Still, the film’s exploration of the complexities of friendship is what influenced me the most about the movie. This theme has been important to everything I’ve written since the days I first started scribbling on notebook paper.
The quintessential moment in Tequila Sunrise occurs halfway through the film when Mac and Nick agree to meet up and discuss the situation they find themselves in with the DEA, Carlos and Jo Ann. On a Southern California beach, with the sun setting behind the Santa Monica Mountains, the two men sit on a public swing set, silhouettes gliding in opposing directions. It would seem that the sun is going down on the long friendship between the men. As the scene is completed, with Nick walking off one way and Mac the other, you wonder if this might be end. But the two friends, who’ve known each other too long just to give up, realize that tomorrow the sun returns and with it another chance for reconciliation and forgiveness. Neither is willing to desert the other, no matter how shitty their actions. It’s a remarkable message that Towne is saying, a message that I’ve taken to heart ever since.
Here’s a preview of next week’s feature.