Published on April 18th, 2013 | by Clint Davis

Tequila Sunrise [1988]

Tequila Sunrise [1988] Clint Davis

Summary: Robert Towne dials down the intensity for a sexy, sunny action film that simply coasts by without leaving much of an impact. It's the Soap Opera Network version of a drug dealer flick.



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R  |  115 min.

Director & Screenplay: Robert Towne

Starring: Mel Gibson, Kurt Russell, Michelle Pfeiffer

Studio: Warner Bros.

Tequila Sunrise — like the colorful cocktail that inspired its title — is a light mix of ingredients that could potentially knock you on your ass. However, the bartender here, director and writer Robert Towne, was more interested in fun & sun than intense action.

I must say that after our last film, I was glad to sit down and watch a fluffy, romantic ’80’s action flick. But this movie is so light it should have the word “diet” slapped on its cover; perhaps Towne could have called it Tequila Sunrise Lite. The plot of Tequila Sunrise involves a boilerplate love triangle of good-looking A-list stars. We have high-ranking narcotics cop Nick (Kurt Russell), “retired” notorious cocaine dealer Dale (Mel Gibson) and straight-laced restaurant owner Jo Ann (Michelle Pfeiffer). That trio equals the respective orange juice, tequila and grenadine in our drink. Toss in a dickish Federal DEA agent, a sleazy lawyer, a mysterious informant and a Mexican drug lord and you’ve got the rest of this film’s cast of character types.

As unlikely friends Dale and Nick, Mel Gibson and Kurt Russell personify the film’s central theme of loyalty.

What makes Tequila Sunrise different than similar crime tales is the loyal friendship between Nick and Dale, despite their obvious career/philosophical differences. Also, the story’s sunny southern California setting — a favorite backdrop of Towne’s, who wrote the ultimate California film noir in 1974’s Chinatown — is a nice departure from the grimy urban streets these stories are usually set against. Thematically, this movie asks an age-old question: Can strong male-male friendships last when a desirable woman is thrown into the mix? Many high school and college guys will tell you, “No way in Hell.” Tequila Sunrise goes a long way in agreeing with them.

At the center of this story, you’ve got two men who’ve been buddies since they were kids, even though one ended up as a noted drug dealer and the other as the LAPD’s head of narcotics. Somehow their friendship seems to have had zero ripples Pfeiffer’s quiet restaurateur enters the picture. These guys were able to look past the fact that their career paths are paradoxical but toss a good-looking chick into the picture and they’re suddenly pointing guns at each other!

As Jo Ann, Michelle Pfeiffer acts as a potential wedge between the plot’s lifelong friends.

I mentioned how lightly this film treads around its subject matter of drugs and crime — this is a key point in examining Tequila Sunrise. Sure, the film takes place in a world where cocaine is supposedly prevalent, but you’ll find more illicit drugs at a Christian daycare than onscreen during this movie. As I watched the film, I was playing a drug-addled version of “I Spy,” where I found a single five-second shot in which a baggy of cocaine could be spotted. I also caught one scene of marijuana use, which may have been the most memorable scene of the movie, as actor Raul Julia was stoned out of his mind singing a Spanish tune.

Tequila Sunrise isn’t only missing drugs and R-rated excitement, it’s also missing a villain. This is a cardinal sin of action filmmaking. Julia’s character, a wanted drug lord named Carlos, is technically the film’s antagonist, but he’s so funny and entertaining that you can’t bring yourself to root against him. In this movie, even the bad guy is a fun-loving, easygoing spirit.

Which reminds me, I need to move to the beach. But, I digress …

The plot quickly turns into one of a romantic struggle for Jo Ann’s affections, with sexy shenanigans abound — but, of course, a choice must be made, putting extra strain on the relationship of our two male leads.

Raul Julia (aka Gomez Adams) turns in the most memorable performance of the film.

The cast of this film is what sets it on autopilot but also what separates it from other similar movies. Three bona fide top-draw performers anchor the action, but it’s Raul freaking Julia that steals scenes and gives Tequila Sunrise‘s third act some needed weight. As I was watching this movie, I kept waiting for a shocking twist to be revealed, but when the plot’s big surprise is unveiled, it simply makes the movie’s police squad look completely moronic. Speaking of which, I love how cops in movies will just hand over a loaded gun to any character that needs it, I guess that’s how life was in a pre-Columbine world …

If you want a hard-hitting look at the war on drugs, watch Traffic or The Wire, because this movie handles that subject with the same level of grit in which Bright Lights, Big City dealt with drug addiction.

At the end of the day, we watch movies as an escape of everyday life and Tequila Sunrise is all about good-looking people getting into sexy situations in a beautiful setting. If you can’t afford a vacation these days, this one will help you float away for a couple of hours.

Check out Tequila Sunrise on Amazon.

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About the Author

Clint Davis is a Cincinnati, Ohio-based journalist who dropped out of film school to write news! Email him at

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