The Flickers: Tequila Sunrise

Tequila Sunrise (1988)

Starring Mel Gibson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kurt Russell, Raúl Juliá, Arliss Howard, Arye Gross, Ann Magnuson, Budd Boetticher and Jim Ladd. Directed by Robert Towne. From Warner Bros.

All images © Warner Bros.

Legendary Los Angeles drug dealer Dale “Mac” McKussic (Gibson) is looking to get out of the business. His clean-cut lawyer, Andy Leonard (Gross), has been paid for services with a bag of cocaine and Mac is helping him sell it. The buyer is accompanied by a “partner”; Mac knows a sting is in effect when he recognizes the partner as his lifelong friend, Nick Frescia (Russell), who just happens to be the cop in charge of narcotics for L.A. County. Mac manages to get himself and his lawyer out of the buy and lams it; he’s late for a dinner reservation.

The dynamic between these old friends is fun to watch. Throw in Woody, the lifeguard (Kenny Moore), and here is a story of three guys who have been friends forever, each having traveled a different path.

Vallenari’s is a swank L.A. eatery owned and operated by the Vallenari family; hostess Jo Ann (Pfeiffer) and her protective brothers. While Mac is enjoying his sand dabs, Nick joins him at the table. He explains to Mac that he has been under surveillance by DEA agent Maguire (Walsh) because of Mac’s relationship with mysterious Mexican drug lord Carlos. There is a concern that Mac and the Vallenari family are in cahoots but when Frescia sees Mac react to Jo Ann and when he carefully interviews her over dinner, it becomes clear to him that she is not involved. It seems the reason that Mac eats at Vallenari’s every day is that he is infatuated with Jo Ann.

Nick and Jo Ann get involved and while Nick seems to genuinely be interested he also plans to position Jo Ann so that she may be used through Mac to get to Carlos – only Mac can identify Carlos as no one else has seen him. Carlos contacts Mac saying he wants to come to town to wrap up some business. Mac is willing to help but he is done with that life; he wants it to be known that he is a legitimate business man so that Jo Ann might be willing to date him. With Carlos on his way to Los Angeles, Maguire brings in a contact of his, a high-ranking Mexican policeman named Escalante (Juliá).

Jo Ann becomes concerned that Nick may be insincere and using her and begins to pull away while at the same time she gets to know Mac and his son. Mac’s n’er-do-well cousin, Lindroff (Howard) keeps pumping Mac for the names of his old contacts and Maguire is pushing Frescia harder for a case against Mac. On the very night Carlos shows up in town, Mac finally makes his play for Jo Ann who is receptive. While Carlos and Mac wrap up their business – which turns out to include eliminating Jo Ann – Nick tries to put his history with Mac aside and do his job while restraining the over-eager Maguire. Drug money, gas-soaked cocaine and leaky boats all come together with these participants resulting in a dangerous climax.

By the time he made, Tequila Sunrise, Mel Gibson was a major star. He had already made three Mad Max movies and the first Lethal Weapon. Immediately afterwards, he would make Lethal Weapon 2 and one of my “hidden gem” favourites, the lighthearted Bird on a Wire (1990) with Goldie Hawn. He would, of course, go on to become one of Hollywood’s biggest players, eventually winning an Oscar and a Golden Globe for producing and directing Braveheart (1996). I’ve always liked him because of his blithe characterizations and his celebrated work behind the camera. You should seek out his excellent films We Were Soldiers and M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, both from 2002, the stunning The Passion of the Christ (2004) and his equally captivating Apocalypto (2006), a film I in no way expected to like but was blown away by. He is actually excellent in the over-the-top The Expendables 3 (2014) and is to be respected for his much-honoured World War 2 film Hacksaw Ridge (2016). His overly-long neo-noir with the great title, Dragged Across Concrete (2018) deserves a second viewing. There are then many highlights in the long career of Mel Gibson.

Old buddies watch the bull fights and enjoy some Herradura and cocaine. Mac is caught between his two best friends; a narcotics cop and a drug lord.

Michelle Pfeiffer is another storied Hollywood actor with many sterling credits to her name. After a perhaps ill-advised appearance in Grease 2 (1982), she turned around the very next year and put in a compelling performance in Brian De Palma’s iconic crime film Scarface. By the time she made our film, she was on the cusp of stardom and would break out in her very next film, Dangerous Liaisons, a film for which she was nominated for an Oscar. Immediately afterwards, she would appear in another of my absolute favourites, The Fabulous Baker Boys, a film for which she did her own singing and earned her second of three Oscar noms and won the Golden Globe. Her turn as Catwoman in Batman Returns (1992) and her starring role in 1995’s Dangerous Minds put her over the top. Watch for her in Rob Reiner’s fascinating marriage drama, The Story of Us (1999) in which she stars opposite my man, Bruce Willis and the excellent remake of Murder on the Orient Express (2017), directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh.

Sunshine and Michelle Pfeiffer go well together in Tequila Sunrise

Kurt Russell is a dude; always has been. Transitioning ably from child star (including his famous kick to the shins of Elvis Presley), he was a veteran of many films by the time he made Tequila Sunrise. These include starring in cult favourites Escape from New York (1981) and The Thing the following year. Notable turns in Big Trouble in Little China and Overboard, in which he starred with his long-time partner in life, Goldie Hawn, lead immediately to his portrayal of Lt. Nick Frescia. He would continue making successful action and drama films appearing notably as Wyatt Earp in Tombstone (1993), Breakdown (1997), also with J.T. Walsh and 3000 Miles to Graceland (2001), a film for which he revisited his links to Elvis Presley – Kurt had portrayed the King in 1979’s Elvis. Russell solidified his reputation in Hollywood with his entrance into the cinematic universe of Quentin Tarantino. Russell starred as Stuntman Mike McKay in Death Proof (2007), headed the notable cast of the Academy Award-winning western The Hateful Eight (2015) and narrated and played a role in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019).

Nick’s best look comes at the end of the film. Basketball coach Pat Riley was actually sought for the role; instead, Kurt Russell adopts Pat’s hairstyle and fashion sense. Note the street sign telling you exactly where this takes place.
It was someone’s brilliant idea to have Frescia smoke these magnificent king-size spears (Malibu Menthols).

I will always love Raúl Juliá for his work in Tequila Sunrise. Born in Puerto Rico, the Shakespearean actor and Broadway singer and actor had appeared in several films before being nominated for a Golden Globe for his role in Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985). After our film, he portrayed MacHeath in a film version of Mack the Knife (1990) and endeared himself to audiences with his portrayal of Gomez Addams in two Addams Family movies. Sadly, Raúl contracted food poisoning from eating sushi while making a film in Mexico. Soon after, he began suffering severe abdominal pain and was admitted to hospital where he studied the script for an intended role in Desperado (1995), a film he would no doubt have been perfect for. However, his condition worsened, he suffered a stroke and fell into a coma from which he never emerged. He was 54. An active humanitarian, Raúl Juliá was a legend in his native land where he was given an elaborate funeral. J.T. Walsh is one of those character actors you like to see turn up in a film. He appears in another one of my beloved favourites, 1990’s The Grifters. These two films alone give him points in my book but he also stood out in Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) and A Few Good Men (1992). Walsh died of a heart attack in 1998; he was also 54. Weeks earlier, he had experienced chest pains and an EKG was misread as normal.

The wonderful Raúl Juliá runs through “Santa Lucia” on a nice boat.

Arliss Howard and Arye Gross are familiar faces. Howard (Natural Born Killers) has been married to Debra Winger since 1996 and Gross has over 100 film and TV credits to his name. Somehow, famed film director Budd Boetticher (1916-2001) has a small role as a judge who helps Jo Ann out. In a fascinating connection, Boetticher spent much of the 1960’s trying to get a documentary made about his friend, famous bullfighter Carlos Arruza. In Tequila Sunrise, a bullfight is shown on television and it is remarked that the bullfighter on-screen is reminiscent of Arruza. A few actual DJs can be heard on the radio in Tequila Sunrise. Jim Ladd is a legendary California DJ who I always connect with his work on the 1987 album from Roger Waters, Radio K.A.O.S. My friend Steve and I were fascinated by this record and thought we’d start our own radio show and call it “Radio KAOS”. Maybe then, we reasoned, Roger Waters would sue us and we’d get to meet him in court. And keep your eyes peeled for Matt LeBlanc. In one scene, Mac and his cousin are watching TV and doesn’t Matt show up in a ketchup commercial!

Tequila Sunrise is notable for many reasons, not the least of which is that it was not only scripted but also one of only four films directed by legendary screenwriter Robert Towne (born 1934). After early work for Roger Corman, Towne gained a rep as a script doctor after doing uncredited work on Warren Beatty’s Bonnie and Clyde and The Godfather; Towne worked mostly on the scene between Michael and Vito shortly before the latter dies. Then in 1974, Towne wrote the screenplay for Chinatown (1974). How well was this received? It not only won Robert an Oscar but it has been called “one of the greatest screenplays ever written”. He also wrote the film’s sequel, 1990’s The Two Jakes. He then hooked up with Tom Cruise who contracted Towne to write the screenplays for The Firm and the first two Mission: Impossible films. This movie also introduced me to the contributions of a good cinematographer. Conrad L. Hall (1926-2003) was the son of a co-writer of the Mutiny on the Bounty novel, named after Joseph Conrad and born in Papeete, Tahiti. Let’s stop there; this makes him a legend already! But Hall has worked on some notable Hollywood films; Harper, Cool Hand Luke, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, all with Newman and he ended his career working on two films by director Sam Mendes, American Beauty (1999) and – again with Newman – Road to Perdition (2002). Along the way, Hall won three Academy Awards, for his last two films and for Butch Cassidy. The shots he presents in Tequila Sunrise are stunning in their clarity and their wonderful use of colour. The film’s producer, Thom Mount, flat-out says that “without Conrad Hall, Tequila Sunrise would not exist”.

Dusk by Hall.
Hall’s framing. Using the mirror, he gets all three actors in the shot.
LA sunshine by Hall.

We’ve already talked about musician Dave Grusin (born 1934) a few times in these pages. I’ve mentioned his work in The Graduate (1967), Winning (1969) and The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984). He also provided the incidental music for Tequila Sunrise. He brought in frequent collaborators guitarist Lee Ritenour and the wonderful saxophonist David Sanborn (born 1945). The Tampa-born Sanborn suffered from polio as a child and on a savvy physician’s advice took up the saxophone simply to strengthen his weakened chest muscles. As a member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Sanborn played at Woodstock but really put his stamp on my life with his stunning work on my 90th-favourite song, David Bowie’s “Young Americans”. In the past 50 years, David Sanborn has played with every single artist in existence and he contributes to this soundtrack with the excellent Grusin composition “Jo Ann’s Song”. The fantastic instrumental smooth jazz ballad plays while Mac and Jo Ann begin their relationship in the hot tub. A wonderfully sensual and atmospheric song.

Ladies and gentlemen, cinematographer Conrad Hall.
Tequila Sunrise is “fundamentally film noir but very, very glamourous”, says producer, Thom Mount.

Other highlights from the soundtrack include the big “Love Theme from…”, “Surrender to Me”, performed by Robin Zander of Cheap Trick and Ann Wilson of Heart. The tune was co-written by Richard Marx and reached #6 on the US Pop charts. Of interest to us fans of the Beach Boys, the guys show up here supporting the Everly Brothers on their excellent version of the Brian Wilson classic “Don’t Worry, Baby”. Appropriately, the tune plays during Mac’s son Cody’s surf competition. The Everlys included this tune on their penultimate album, Some Hearts and issued it as their penultimate single that charted only in Australia where it peaked at #86. The first sound you hear in this movie is the immortal Bobby Darin singing “Beyond the Sea”. This tune, remarkably, can be heard in well over 100 films and episodes of television. The soundtrack for this film, issued on Capitol Records, I owned on cassette back in the day, mostly for “Jo Ann’s Song”.

I took a quick look. My list of my Top 25 favourite films is basically cut in two halves; one half is comprised of films that I loved when I was a teenager and young adult and of these 8 of them were released between 1983 and 1989. So if we assume that – back in that day – it took 2 or 3 years for a film to hit the shelves of the video stores, I first watched and fell in love with these movies before I hit the age of 20. Tequila Sunrise is among them. As a romantic, the film hit home for me right away for one of the same reasons that Swingers did five or six years later. Of the two male leads, Gibson plays Mac as a quiet, gentle type who may lack a bit of confidence with the ladies; much like Jon Favreau’s Mike in Swingers. Nick Frescia – like Vince Vaughn as Trent Walker – doesn’t seem so afflicted. Certainly in Jo Ann’s case, Mac is deeply smitten and regularly dines at Vallenari’s just to interact with Jo Ann. Indeed, much of his life at this point is committed to getting the word to her that he has cleaned up his act. This romantic angle resonantly with me right from the first viewing. An interesting pivot point occurs in their relationship when Jo Ann caters a party for Cody, Mac’s son with Shaleen (Ann Magnuson playing, in fact, the only other female character in this film) who is also in attendance. Mac pumps Jo Ann, wondering about her and Nick. Jo Ann admits that Nick told her that Mac was in fact not getting out of the drug business despite his claims to the contrary; “He called me a drug-dealer and a liar? What a bummer”. Mac gives Shaleen her money in an envelope and Jo Ann shows her first bit of curiosity when she witnesses the transaction. Later Shaleen perhaps wonders herself as she watches Cody talk to Jo Ann. Anyways, Mac has given the girls the wrong envelopes and Jo Ann finds Mac on the beach for the surfing contest to return his money. At that moment, Cody wipes out and hurts himself and Jo Ann helps Mac get Cody to and from the hospital and settled in bed. I’ve always thought it was interesting that here are two acquaintances that happen to be thrown together by a mini-tragedy. Wonderful, too, that this affords Mac his chance to tell Jo Ann how he feels in a well-acted scene.

I quit drinking when my kids were babies but this film has strong connections to my days as a Friday night regular at Kelsey’s Roadhouse in the town I came of age in. Back then, I was always trying to find a drink that agreed with me, was most effective and would do the least amount of damage. Because of this film, I began a mini-era of drinking tequila sunrises. As I understood then, the tequila-and-orange juice concoction had the red grenadine added to it by pouring it down the length of a spoon so that it would get to the bottom and slowly rise to the top, giving it a sunrise effect. The bartenders at Kelsey’s, who knew my friends and I well, raised an eyebrow the first time I ordered a tequila sunrise. I learned how to order one to my liking when the first one came with way too much grenadine. For a time, tequila really worked for me due to its effectiveness as I was often cash-strapped in those days. But the acidity of the orange juice – the same went for screwdrivers – made for some really unfortunate mornings. I always liked to align myself though with Dale McKussic in this film and we often see him enjoying this cocktail using Herradura Tequila, contributed for use in the film by Seagram’s of Canada. In fact, part of Hall’s fine photography can be seen in how these attractive drinks appear on screen. They’re almost glowing. Incidentally, Tequila Sunrise features some of my favourite titles this side of Blue Hawaii. Notice that they are yellow on top and gradually turn to orange, just like the titular beverage. Credit Dan Perri with this visual treat. A veteran of nearly 300 films, Perri is best known for the crawling opening credits of Star Wars. The Herradura tequila and Dos Equis beer drank in the film lend it a good Mexican flavour.

I’ve already touched on the relationships in Tequila Sunrise but one of the most intriguing elements of the movie is the dynamic between Mac and Nick and Mac and Carlos. Looking closely, you’ll see a photograph in both Mac’s home and Nick’s office depicting the friends as lifeguards back in the day. In an early scene, Maguire runs down Nick’s history with Dale McKussic; on July 17, 1963 on Hermosa Beach, Nick and Dale are arrested for curfew violation. Later, in 1970, Nick and Mac get in a jam at Rosarito Beach in Baja California and Mac lands in a Mexican prison for two years. Nick says that if he hadn’t been in the water at the time he would’ve been smoking a joint with Mac and went to jail, as well. Fast forward to the present day and Nick is being made lieutenant and will be head of Narcotics for L.A. County. Maguire says it’s well known that Nick won’t work the South Bay because he won’t bust his friend, McKussic. During a conversation, Nick warns Mac to not try anything in his jurisdiction; “Don’t make me look bad”, Nick says. Mac says he’s not up to anything; “and you couldn’t catch me if I was”. Drug dealer and head of narcotics; I like this dynamic.

While he was in that Mexican prison, Mac has his life saved by Carlos. Mac has been indebted to Carlos ever since and the two have done business. But more than this, they are friends. Watching them together is delightful. When Carlos attempts the tricky maneuver of showing up in town and doing business with Mac, one of his biggest concerns is if the two will have time to play ping pong. When they finally hit the table, Mac is called away and Carlos in incensed; “we’re never gonna finish the game!”. Mel Gibson has often infused a playfulness into his performances and Raúl Juliá handles this light comedy well. Juliá’s speaking voice is as musical as his singing voice and he delivers his lines majestically. Carlos proves to be vicious by the end of the action but his love and affection for Mac is always in evidence. It’s nothing personal, buddy. This relationship is also a joy to watch.

“Friendship is the only choice in life you can make that’s yours. You can’t choose your family…friendship is all we have. We chose each other!”

– Raúl Juliá delivers these lines with vigour and they resonated with me as a young man.

What may have got me most in the early days of watching this film were the physical locations. Through the Beach Boys, I’ve always been enamoured with the ethos of Southern California. But I’ve always tried to avoid the touristy aspects of the Golden State and delve into the every day life, the homes and the street corners. The “living” as opposed to the “visiting”. Same goes, actually, for the fascinating fact that people actually live and work in Las Vegas and then there’s Dolan Road in Memphis. Removed from the “bright lights” of the Elvis/Graceland experience is this road that runs along the southern edge of the Graceland property. It’s just a street where people live. And they look over their fence and see the Racquetball Building.

Tequila Sunrise takes place in L.A. County and was shot in and around the beach cities of Manhattan, Redondo and Hermosa as well as San Pedro, Venice and Santa Monica. And in keeping with my love of regular L.A. living, Mac’s house is intriguing and deserves its own post. I may sound foolish to those that have a better understanding of housing in L.A. County but… Mac’s house is on the beach, Santa Monica State Beach, I’ll assume. Similar to Freddy Shoop’s house in the classic Summer School (1987), you access the garage from the street that’s more a small lane. There’s a back door from the garage leading to the door of the house. Mac will often walk to the right of the garage down a path between the garage and an Airstream trailer he has set up there. The trailer has its own hot tub and mini yard/deck. The path angles to the left and into the house. Decking on the beach side give access to and a great view of the ocean. It is the mini lot on which the Airstream sits that makes this home so fascinating. The idea that guests could stay in it or you yourself could just decide to escape here for awhile adds to the mystique and the charm of living in this location. Interesting, too, that Mac owns a lot above his home where he stores his boat. Frescia arranges to have it moved and the Mexican police set up surveillance there.

Romance and beautiful homes. Handsome cocktails and sunny locales. A neo-noir crime melodrama in the glamourous Old Hollywood tradition with at least one majestic performance (Juliá’s) and much else to fill your eyes, ears and your spirit, really. Not only aesthetically fun to watch but there is much to feel, too, in Tequila Sunrise.


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