'Tequila Sunrise' is the story of a drug dealer and a cop and the woman who loves them, and thanks to the enormous attractiveness of its stars -- Mel Gibson, Kurt Russell and Michelle Pfeiffer -- it's seductive in every visual detail.
Directed and written by Robert Towne, whose award-winning credits include 'Chinatown,' 'The Last Detail' and 'Shampoo,' 'Tequila Sunrise' is mesmerizing both to look at and listen to; the screenplay often crackles with a terse sophistication.
Alas, all that beauty and poise makes you think something is going on when, as it turns out, there is nothing at all happening in 'Tequila Sunrise' but a lot of vacuous drama about the loyalty between two high school buddies and the luminous beauty who must decide between them.
Gibson, playing the drug dealer McKussic, is anxious to retire and gain some respectability and the girl of his dreams, the stunning Jo Ann, who owns the restaurant that's McKussic favors. But McKussic is called on one last time to come through for a big Mexican drug dealer, Carlos, played by Raul Julia. It's a favor he can't turn down. However, it's also a favor that's drawn the attention of the FBI, who leans heavily on the local narcotics chief, played by Russell, to bring McKussic to justice.
Trouble is, McKussic and the cop called Frescia are former best friends, and still care a lot about each other. They both proceed with what each has to do, all the while trying to maintain their friendship. Things get even more touchy when Frescia gets romantically involved with Jo Ann; it's hard for her, or the audience, to tell how much of the romance is business -- to get closer to McKussic -- and how much is the love of a beautiful woman.
'Tequila Sunrise' would be a credible B movie on the merit of its story line, and perhaps what's so frustrating is that it's so mesmerizing, you figure there's a great turn-of-plot or character evolution that will take it out of the ordinary. For awhile, Julia, as Carlos (who is a Mexican law enforcement agent who's been fooling U.S. authorities for years), gives 'Tequila Sunrise' that moment of possibility. His performance is extraordinarily deft, managing to make Carlos/Escalante (the Mexican cop) demonic and charismatic all at once. He's protector and corruptor of the community, and he gives both a terrifying and charming aura to the role.
But Gibson and Russell aren't up to the challenge. Their characters are at best boyish; McKussic gives no hint to the ruthlessness that must have motivated his interest in the money aspect of his sordid career. It's only in his scenes with Carlos/Escalante that we get a glimpse of the drug career that began as a lark and became deadly serious.
Russell does a little better as the sly-as-a-fox Frescia, who maintains his best friendship with the drug dealer while still hunting him down for an arrest. Together, Russell and Gibson are bland, like two handsome, likable and not very bright friends rather than the buddies who chose radically different philosophies of life. Pfeiffer is absolutely stunning as Jo Ann, and often gives 'Tequila Sunrise' an elegant passion. The problem is that her final romantic choice seems so anticlimatic; Jo Ann seemed so guarded and analytical, it's hard to believe she'd fall so completely in love that she put up with a beating and still breathlessly claim that she's in love.
Still, Pfeiffer and Gibson are an incredibly good-looking couple and their romantic scenes are steamy. They just finally seem so corny.
Towne gives 'Tequila Sunrise' plenty of memorable scenes, and an edginess that keeps you waiting for the dramatic shoe to drop. It never does, unfortunately, and his movie finally fades into a rather dull sunset.
This movie is rated R. The film contains sexual content and some violence.