by Jack Sommersby
Was dumped in theatres with very little in the way of advance promotion, then died a quick box-office death. Too bad: it deserved better.Contextually, 8 Million Ways to Die is a mess, what with a completely illogical screenplay serving up one big plot hole after another, which is something of a travesty being that the source material it's based on, Lawrence Block's extraordinary, Edgar-award-winning mystery novel, boasted a tantalizing plot, a riveting central characterization, and enough gritty New York-mean-street texture for a dozen literary works. In fact, there's not a single solitary scene from it that's been retained in the movie. The setting has been relocated from New York City to Los Angeles. Rather than black-market emeralds, the main plot centers around cocaine. The villain, rather than an anonymous hit man who only appears in one of the novel's last chapters, is now a grandiose Colombian drug kingpin with an array of nasty-tempered henchmen. Where there was no love interest, there's one now in the quite-unoriginal person of a hooker with (yep) a heart of gold. And, most disappointing, the hero's horrendous alcohol addiction, which Block depicted harrowingly, is treated as a mere afterthought. Cinematically, though, against numerous odds, the movie manages to be entertaining, occasionally exciting, and colorful stuff from start to finish. Which is quite a surprise being that the director is Hal Ashby, whose previous pictures have been of the enervating talking-heads variety (Being There; Coming Home), has never been a particularly persuasive technician. Here, working with an amorphous crime plot and familiar character types, he's fashioned everything with a go-for-broke fervor that brings every conceivable lurid aspect bursting to the surface -- it's as unsubtle a cinematic endeavor as you're likely to see; and as undisciplined and unctuous as some of the elements are, you can't take your eyes off the damn thing. There's an aliveness, a pulsating sense of sleaze and profaneness to it that keeps you riveted even though you're always aware it's the equivalent of the tastiest junk food that's certainly not good for you but irresistible to turn down. No, it's not the masterpiece of a novel; but, while highly negligible in places, it maintains interest for nearly every minute of its almost-two-hour running time.
Though the role of Matthew Scudder, a boozy officer with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's department, isn't as consistently written as we'd like, the always-welcome Jeff Bridges plays him with his customary solidity. After a superb opening-credits sequence, with a hypnotic aerial view of a smog-shrouded L.A. punctuated by composer James Newton Howard's dynamic score, Scudder is involved in the fatal shooting of a small-time drug dealer: arriving at a house with a warrant in hand, Scudder is forced to shoot the man while he resists arrest with a baseball bat; being that the man didn't have a gun and it happened in front of his wife and two young children, Internal Affairs, knowing of Scudder's fondness for drink, are all over him afterward. Scudder takes a leave of absence from the force, and his wife leaves him over his drinking; six months later, though, with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, he's sober and plans on getting reinstated. Eking out a living as an unofficial private detective, he takes on as a client a high-class call girl named Sunny (Alexandra Paul) who wants to "get out of the life" and dissociate herself from her pimp, Chance (Randy Brooks), who she fears will hurt her if she leaves. Interestingly, Chance is quite out of the ordinary: operating a posh bordello/casino in his mansion high up in the Malibu hills, he's well-mannered, immaculately dressed, and a connoisseur of expensive art, and takes exception to being labeled a pimp ("All I pay them for is the availability to my customers"). The next morning, with Scudder accompanying her until she gets to the airport, Sunny is abducted by some people in a van, Scudder takes pursuit in his car, and Sunny's butchered body is found shortly thereafter in a water basin. Guilt-ridden (he was buying a birthday present for his daughter next door to where Sunny was), he goes on a drinking binge, wakes up in a hospital from a grand mal seizure, and is determined to track down Sunny's killer. This leads him into an antagonistic relationship with the smarmy, snaky Angel Maldonado (Andy Garcia), the kingpin, and also with Sarah (Roseana Arquette), Chance's second-in-command who blames Scudder for Sunny's death.
It's best not to concentrate on the story, which is a shambles. The identity of Sunny's murderer is revealed at the midway mark (through a feeble bit involving a missing stone in a ring), and the motivation behind it comes far too late for us to care (and it's revealed just as haphazardly), so there's neither propulsion nor immediacy to the mystery angle. Reportedly, the screenplay went through several rewrites, which helps explain its shooting off into diaphanous tangents -- sometimes we're watching a character study of an alcoholic, sometimes a love story, sometimes a thriller; and Ashby isn't a talented enough moviemaker to pull these various elements together into something organically consistent (not that anyone probably could with this haphazard japery, mind you, but at least a William Friedkin kinetic-type could've given it some jackhammer-ferocity propulsion so we didn't have so much downtime to linger over the screenplay's shortcomings). We're asked to believe that Scudder, in trying to entrap Angel in a big-time dope buy so he can be busted by the police, would think a sharpie like Angel would believe that this far-from-rich ex-cop has a quarter-of-a-million dollars at his disposal. That Scudder would foolishly put Sarah's life at risk by having her accompany him to a meeting with Angel and his goons (even though it's in a public place) when he knows Angel is behind Sunny's murder. That a recovering alcoholic like Scudder would not only live in an abode right behind a bar but hang out in the bar even if it's just to have the occasional Coca-Cola. That someone like Sunny would have known someone in Scudder's AA group who could put her in touch with him. That Sunny could've been grabbed from a dry-cleaning shop without attracting any attention. And so on. 8 Million Ways to Die is so utterly unconcerned with even the faintest shreds of logicality it's almost as if it thinks it's daring in the willingness to unapologetically thrust illogicality in our faces. This isn't simply a matter of a couple of story integrals regretfully getting lost in the cutting room, but a smorgasbord of inanities that shouldn't have past mustard on any screenwriter's watch. Watching the movie, it's simply unfathomable to believe that Block's source material is the burningly-brilliant masterpiece that it is.
Still, though the pacing drags in places, and enough so that you're made more aware of the scenes that don't work, there's some jazziness to the staging of the scenes that do work, which, again, is unexpected coming from the usually-undistinguished Ashby. A short car chase, with the hero pursuing with a slashed front tire, boasts clear spatial logistics. The grand finale, involving a shootout on and then underneath a tram bridge, has been engineered for maximum tension. And in the movie's best sequence, in an empty warehouse, with Scudder and Chance on one end with Angel's cocaine cache rigged to incinerate, Angel and his henchmen slowly advancing toward them on the other with a shotgun duct-taped to a blindfolded Sarah's head, and a tactical squad of cops hiding high up in the rafters, is superbly staged and edited -- with its perfectly sustained crazy energy, it's both horrifying and hilarious at the same time. Ashby obviously gave the actors plenty of room to improvise, to feel out their characters and fill them out. Some of the time it's awkward, resulting in sometimes-monotonous spats of profanity that puncture rather than punctuate the proceedings; but there are some unearthed jewels along the way, like in a rare understated scene where Scudder and Sarah, in Scudder's kitchen after a night of arguing, let down their guard and share with each other some revealing personal history. And though the character is certainly a live wire, with Garcia giving an alert, volcanic performance, Angel is far from a one-dimensional villain: intelligent and uncommonly perceptive (and with an affinity for snow cones), he revels in letting his enemies know how much he's in control -- when he and Scudder stand face to face sizing one another up, with both actors working on instinct and with the confidence not to rush things, it's dazzling. (The TV show Miami Vice never had this kind of raw vitality between its characters.) The movie also has its share of humor (in the background, Chance's and Angel's bodyguards trading fighting tips; Maalox references), as well as some truly loopy lines (Sunny calling her pubic hair "cotton candy with a glow"). As one can surmise by now, 8 Million Ways to Die isn't without its problems, but when it manages to break free of its shortcomings it puts many cookie-cutter entries of the crime genre to shame.Ridiculous that this still isn't available in a Region 1 DVD.
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originally posted: 05/31/12 20:55:59