Tequila Sunrise (film)

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Tequila Sunrise
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Robert Towne
Produced by Thom Mount
Written by Robert Towne
Starring Mel Gibson
Michelle Pfeiffer
Kurt Russell
Raul Julia
Music by Dave Grusin
Cinematography Conrad L. Hall
Edited by Claire Simpson
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release dates
  • December 2, 1988 (1988-12-02)
Running time
115 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $23 million (estimated)
Box office $105,932,000

Tequila Sunrise is a 1988 American crime thriller film written and directed by Robert Towne. It stars Mel Gibson, Michelle Pfeiffer and Kurt Russell, with Raúl Juliá, J. T. Walsh, Arliss Howard and Gabriel Damon in supporting roles.

The film, only the second (after Personal Best) to be both written and directed by Academy Award–winning screenwriter Towne, was commercially successful, making over $100 million at the box office worldwide, but critical reception was mixed. One reviewer was of the opinion that, "perhaps because the elements were so irresistible—Robert Towne directing Gibson, Russell and Pfeiffer in a California crime film—an aura of disappointment settled over Tequila Sunrise, no matter how engaging, and profitable, it turned out to be."[1]

Tequila Sunrise was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography.[2] The film's soundtrack spawned the hit single "Surrender to Me", performed by Ann Wilson (lead singer of Heart) and Robin Zander (lead singer of Cheap Trick), where it went to #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 in early 1989.


Dale "Mac" McKussic (Mel Gibson) is a former drug dealer trying to go straight. His close friend Nick Frescia (Kurt Russell) is a Detective Lieutenant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department who, in spite of their long term friendship going back to high school, is duty-bound to bring Mac to justice if he is selling drugs again, as DEA Agent Hal Maguire (J. T. Walsh) believes to be the case.

Mac is attracted to stylish restaurant owner Jo Ann Vallenari (Michelle Pfeiffer). Nick becomes acquainted with Jo Ann while attempting to learn more about Mac's activities while frequenting her restaurant, in particular his relationship with the Mexican drug kingpin Carlos, whom the DEA agents and Mexican federal police commandante Escalante (Raul Julia) believe is coming to town. Mac is living a straight life and is trying to stay away from his former drug smuggling ways. But he is receiving pressure from his friend Carlos to do one last job.

Jo Ann succumbs to Nick's charms and a love affair begins. Nick genuinely cares for Jo Ann but she becomes angry with him when Mac accuses Jo Ann of spying on him for Nick. She accuses Nick of using her to gather information on Mac because Mac often eats at her restaurant and hires her to cater his son's birthday party. Nick admits to Jo Ann that he is investigating Mac and that he originally approached her because of that. But he truthfully admits that he really has fallen in love with her. Jo Ann ends her relationship with Nick for his initial deception. Nick's friendship with Mac is endangered as Maguire and his associates set a trap for Mac and the mysterious Carlos, whose face none of them except Mac has seen.

In time, Jo Ann realizes that Mac is in love with her and that she has fallen in love with Mac. Meanwhile Nick has figured out that Mac's cousin Gregg is an informer for the DEA. Nick also realizes that DEA Agent McGuire has become dangerously obsessed with catching Mac. Mac and Jo Ann make love at his house. Jo Ann is called to her restaurant on business. Nick meets her there, gives her a pistol for protection, and tells her to stay away from Mac tonight. She does not heed Nick's warning and returns to Mac's house. Where she accidentally discovers that Escalante is in deed Carlos. Carlos relieves Jo Ann of Nick's pistol and takes her to his yacht at the marina.

Carlos figures out that Gregg is the informer and has him killed, leaving his body next to a shipment of gasoline contaminated cocaine. McGuire and Nick find Gregg's body and the cocaine at the beach. McGuire becomes incensed that he is losing control of the investigation. Nick meets Mac and tells him that he thinks Jo Ann is in danger. Mac rushes to the marina. Upon arriving there Carlos pressures him to kill Jo Ann because she knows Carlos's true identity. Mac refuses, he gets a hold of Nick's pistol, threatens Carlos with it, and gets Jo Ann to safety. Mac promises Carlos that he will meet him at the rendezvous site as arranged after he gets Jo Ann away. Mac gets Jo Ann to Nick begging him to keep her safe. Meanwhile McGuire has figured out that Escalante is Carlos and heads for the marina. Mac returns to the marina in his speed boat. He confronts Carlos and a fight ensues between them. As they struggle over the pistol that Nick gave Jo Ann it discharges into Carlos's abdomen. Carlos forgives Mac and asks Mac to forgive him, and then dies.

McGuire arrives at the marina and starts shooting at Mac and Carlos in Mac's boat. Mac puts his hands up and tells McGuire that he surrenders. McGuire continues to shoot intent on killing Mac. The gunfire causes the boat's fuel tank to catch fire. Mac jumps in the water to escape the bullets and the fire. Nick arrives at the marina. He hears the gunfire, draws his service pistol, and rushes down the pier. He orders McGuire to cease fire, that Mac is surrendering. McGuire continues shooting forcing Nick to shoot and kill him. The fire causes the boat to explode which burns up Carlos's and McGuire's bodies as well as any drugs that might have been on the boat.

The film ends with Nick asking Jo Ann to meet him at the beach. She arrives to find Mac whom she runs to and embraces in the waves. Meanwhile Nick watches from above near a life guard station with a smile on his face.



Tequila Sunrise was filmed on location at Manhattan Beach, California, USA.[3]

Before filming commenced, actors attached to the lead male roles included Harrison Ford, Alec Baldwin, Nick Nolte and Jeff Bridges.[4]

The expensive menswear and slicked-back hair sported by Kurt Russell's character, Detective Lieutenant Nick Frescia, was modelled upon Pat Riley, the basketball coach that director Robert Towne initially intended for the role. Russell was quoted as saying that "Riley's look was right for this film because he was arrogantly confident but not offensive."[5]

The famous love scene between Mel Gibson and Michelle Pfeiffer takes place in a hot tub, that was reportedly not properly constructed or chlorinated, resulting in skin rashes and splinters for the actors and their body doubles, and causing production to halt for a few days.[4]

Director Robert Towne wanted Dale McKussic (Mel Gibson) to go up in smoke at the end of the film, but one of the conditions Warner Bros. set was that he must live. "Gibson's character was supposed to be a moth in the flame," said Towne. "The real high for him was never doing the drugs, but the danger of dealing the drugs."[1]


Critical response[edit]

Tequila Sunrise currently holds a score of 44% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 18 reviews,[6] and a score of 62 on Metacritic,[7] indicating mixed reviews. However, it was a commercial success, made for less than $20 million and grossing over $105 million worldwide.[1]

Critics commented both positively and negatively upon the labyrinthine nature of the complex plot, characteristic of earlier Robert Towne screenplays such as Chinatown. Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times wrote that "Tequila Sunrise weaves a tangled web, and there are times when we are not sure what is happening, or why. There are even moments when the chronology itself seems confused, when characters seem to know things they could not be aware of, when other characters arrive at places they should not have known about."[8] Vincent Canby in the New York Times called it "the fuzzy focus of someone who has stared too long at a light bulb. Narrative points aren't made and the wrong points are emphasized."[9] However, Time Out wrote that the "set-up has the precision of fine needlepoint, picking out the plot outline before embroidering it with a complex pattern of interwoven relationships."[10]

Michelle Pfeiffer was described as a "stunning presence" in the New York Times,[9] while Time Out thought her "perfect as the immaculately dressed and icily controlled restaurateur caught between Gibson's honest (ex-)criminal and Russell's ambiguously motivated cop."[10] Variety praised each of the lead performances—"Gibson projects control skating atop paranoia, and is appealing as a man you'd want to trust. Russell is fine as the slick cop who's confused by his own shifting values, and Pfeiffer achieves a rather touching quality with her gun-shy girl beneath the polished professional"—but concluded there was "not much kick in this cocktail, despite its mix of quality ingredients."[11]


Conrad L. Hall was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography, and won an American Society of Cinematographers Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in Theatrical Releases.[2]

Gabriel Damon was nominated for a Young Artist Award in the category of Best Young Actor Supporting Role in a Motion Picture.[2]


  1. ^ a b c Sragow, Michael (September 17, 1998). "Phoenix News - Screenplayer". phoenixnewtimes.com. 
  2. ^ a b c "Tequila Sunrise (1988) - Awards". imdb.com. Retrieved 2009-11-08. 
  3. ^ "Tequila Sunrise (1988) - Filming locations". imdb.com. Retrieved 2009-11-08. 
  4. ^ a b "Tequila Sunrise (1988) - Trivia". imdb.com. Retrieved 2009-11-08. 
  5. ^ Aschburner, Steve (5 September 2008). "With his unique style and attitude, Pat Riley changed the game". Sports Illustrated. Retrieved 26 May 2009. 
  6. ^ "Tequila Sunrise Movie Reviews, Pictures". rottentomatoes.com. Retrieved 2009-11-08. 
  7. ^ "Tequila Sunrise reviews at Metacritic.com". metacritic.com. Retrieved 2009-11-08. 
  8. ^ Ebert, Roger (December 2, 1988). "Tequila Sunrise :: rogerebert.com :: Reviews". rogerebert.suntimes.com. 
  9. ^ a b Canby, Vincent (December 2, 1988). "Movie Review - Tequila Sunrise - Reviews/Film; Of Cocaine and a Clash of Loyalties". nytimes.com. 
  10. ^ a b "Tequila Sunrise Review - Film - Time Out London". timeout.com. Retrieved 2009-11-08. 
  11. ^ "Tequila Sunrise Review". variety.com. 1988-01-01. Retrieved 2009-11-08. 

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