This meview has spoilers.
Before we knew him as problematic, and that is the mildest label considering, Mel Gibson was Dale ‘Mac’ McKussic, a former bourgeois drug dealer living in a beach house with his son in Southern Cali (Huntington Beach?) trying desperately to retire and go legit—and remain that way—by selling farm equipment. This, in the 1988 romantic drama Tequila Sunrise. Best friends with Lieutenant Nick Frescia, the head of narcotics for L.A. county, played by Kurt Russell, and Carlos, a Mexican drug lord, played by the absolutely brilliant Raul Julia, McKussic is being pursued unknowingly by DEA Agent Hal McGuire who goes over Frescia’s head to entrap McKussic by setting up Mac’s lawyer in a drug sting. Frescia only learns about it when he joins the sting accidentally and finds Mac there much to both their surprise. Friendship prevails and they boot each other from that sticky situation. Frescia confronts McGuire and McGuire asks him why he didn’t bust McKussic—
Nick: He’s a friend of mine.
Maguire: The first thing I heard when I came to L.A. is that Nick Fresia wouldn’t work South Bay because he didn’t want to bust Dale McKussic. Tonight you proved that point. You not only let him walk, you gave him a personal escort.
Now this is where the movie starts to get really interesting for me personally. McGuire points out that McKussic is in and out of an Italian restaurant all the time. Frescia is unconvinced so he confronts McKussic in that restaurant when the lovely Jo Ann Vallenari—hostess and co-owner of the restaurant, along with her brother—played by the gorgeous and talented Michelle Pfeiffer, checks on McKussic. McKussic becomes hesitant and somewhat flustered, almost shy, while Frescia starts openly flirting with her much to Mac’s annoyance.
Frescia and McGuire agree to go after Carlos who McGuire says is coming to town to do a deal. Frescia agrees to work with McGuire while also attempting to protect Mac—he realizes McGuire is dirty as well as dumb; an irritating and precarious combination in a Fed that could prove disastrous for both Mac and Frescia. During this time, Frescia also begins to pursue Vallenari and they start a relationship, which really bothers Mac. Mac clearly has a crush on Vallenari who he had been working up to asking out before Nick arrived and started poking around and pursuing her. There’s also another layer of an informant in this entanglement that causes Mac some uncertainty about Vallenari—is she or isn’t she. This is quickly answered to me though may not be for some.
Mac’s crush is revealed in shades throughout that he ultimately exposes in a pivotal scene with Vallenari at his kitchen table while discussing respectability in which both Pfeiffer and Gibson perform beautifully. This leads to another crucial scene and confrontation between Frescia and Vallenari where she delivers two of the many great lines of the movie—
Jo Ann: Mr. McKussic, it seems, has been engaged in his business for purely romantic reasons, whilst you have been engaged in romance for purely business reasons.
Nick Frescia: I’m not sure I understand.
Jo Ann: A little vague for you?
Nick Frescia: A little.
Jo Ann: Well, then, let me spell it out for you: you want to fuck your friend, then fuck him, not me!
Through the machinations of Mac’s young son Cody, a move right out of Parent Trap (and who apparently is, to my ever-bleeding-romantic-heart, a shipper—stay true, Cody!), Mac and Jo Ann find themselves alone together which eventually leads to Jo Ann coming face-to-face with Carlos. This becomes a choice for Mac—a life or death decision between his love for Jo Ann or his friendship with Carlos.
I won’t deny it, Mac’s coy crush and antics to secure respectability and a date are endearing as fuck. His genuine school-boy charm attempts at that respectability are just one of the film’s many appeals and seeped right into my ever-bleeding-romantic heart. Gibson plays the part perfectly; his facial expressions faultless. The sexual tension between him and Pfeiffer charges each scene in anticipation of the next. Russell’s slick lieutenant act is as you expect—sly, crafty, and utterly cringeworthy. He gets his redemption through his clever detecting and the dedication, friendship, and love he has for Mac, and the consequent recognition and appreciation he gives to Mac and Jo Ann together. J.T. Walsh’s Hal McGuire is as you imagine any 80’s DEA agent and I’ll let you infer what you will from that.
It’s Michelle Pfeiffer and Raul Julia that get my highest praise. Raul Julia has some of the best lines of the script—
Carlos: With you, Mac, I trust with my life, but you keep me waiting all goddamn night without showing the slightest sign of worrying about me.
McKussic: Hey, I’m sorry, man.
Carlos: Forget it, you had your hands full. I could see that. What’s more, you fuck like a world champion. Four fucking hours! Those cops out there are terrified their wives are going to hear about this. I got starved just watching!
[tastes Jo Ann’s food]
Carlos: She can cook too, this girl. Believe me, if she’d be willing to take out the garbage, marry her. Trust me, buddy.
Carlos: You son of a bitch! How could you do this? Friendship is the only choice in life you can make that’s yours! You can’t choose your family, God damn it – I’ve had to face that! And no man should be judged for whatever direction his dick goes – that’s like blaming a compass for pointing north, for Christ’s sake! Friendship is all we have! We chose each other. How could you fuck it up? How could you make us look so bad?
There is some obvious and excessive eye-rolling machismo that comes close but not quite bordering on toxic at times from the men. That is not exactly matched but not quite unforgiving either as it accompanies emotions, sensitivity, deference, love, and vulnerability of situations and of the characters, including, most importantly, friendship. The love triangle is not exactly hostile and as I’ve written before, I have a certain reverence and fondness for stories where three people love each other and it doesn’t turn ugly and cruel; a product, I suppose, of my irresolute childhood—go figure.
Nuance and complications chronicle the many layers—of the friendships, characters, and relationships; the character studies beg interpretation. The quiet scenes sit with you designed to compel philosophical thought rather than narrate hard lines that leave only edges and rigid impressions and attitudes. I love that in a romantic drama.
The four joys deliver some mildly impressive moments at times though Gibson could’ve been more allusive and subtle in that first kiss and seduction without leaping on Pfeiffer in record speed like a horny teenage virgin—I suppose he knew he was on a schedule and people were waiting and watching, maybe? Hopefully? Or perhaps this was one of his first love scenes? There’s a sublime and gradual nuance in seduction that misses by a mile there, embarrassingly so—for him. Other than that, I love the way the scene was shot and unfolds during and after also in parallel to the USDEA and the Mexican Federales waiting anxiously for them to hurry up and finish as they eagerly watch and listen—voyeurism! Hey, I dig it. The kisses are not flat and thin-lipped, so there’s that but with a partner like Pfeiffer, I don’t see how one could fail—men though, amirite?
Robert Towne, the director and writer, has a long history in Hollywood that goes back to his most acclaimed creation Chinatown—I cannot remember that movie other than vaguely liking it but don’t hold me to that opinion since it has been a while. Towne worked with Tom Cruise on a few films like Days of Thunder, a couple of Mission Impossibles, and The Firm—those I enjoyed.
The soundtrack was fairly good; Ann Wilson (Heart) and Robin Zander (Cheap Trick) hit all those ballad and love song highs with Surrender to Me (my GenX ever-bleeding-romantic heart really misses those kinda ballads); Duran Duran too (I was eighteen when this movie premiered and a huge fan). The sax-driven jazz throughout added a not quite-L.A.-noir-effect and provides a creative charm that I tend to fall for.
There are a few things I would’ve done differently for the gaze to be more neutral and given Pfeiffer more room and power to shine—otherwise, a great movie and one of my favorites.
I cannot comfortably and confidently debate the socio-political or economic issues of this movie and will leave that for the experts to consider and review.
This is probably the only movie in Gibson’s filmography that I can separate the art from the artist. With imagination and experience, I cannot quite help thinking what if when certain scenes evolve. His personal misdeeds hover in the back corner of my mind whispering to me—y’all know which ones I mean. Yeah, I can force myself to enjoy a few other of his films that I could admittedly avoid if necessary. This movie, however, I cannot and I cautiously applaud all involved. It hits all my romantic high notes; even my morbidly unhealthy but exciting fascination with the sensitive, vulnerable, bad-boy, outcast trope. I can only deduce that it must be cuz of my outlaw daddy issues—who knows.
© 2022 Matilda London/Pamela Gay Mullins
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