Home Video Hovel: 8 Million Ways to Die, by Alexander Miller
Since home video has undergone the Blu-ray evolution, it has unearthed a handful of neo-noirs and cop movies from the 1980’s; some overlooked, some divisive and others that have aged out of the public perception for one reason or another.
Movies like To Live and Die in L.A., 52-Pickup, Black Rain, and The Year of the Dragon aren’t perfect. These are admirably uneven movies from great directors that, in my opinion, are incredibly entertaining.
So hearing about 8 Million Ways to Die and discovering it’s helmed by Hal Ashby, working from a script by Oliver Stone, starring Jeff Bridges, Patricia Arquette, and Andy Garcia, it seemed like everything was aligned for this to be another minor gem from unlikely circumstances.
Unfortunately, the collective talent yields a shakily realized film that has the appearance of the slick-but-gritty neo-noirs of their contemporaries. But this overstuffed film never gains any momentum and clumsily trips over its shoelaces.
The film opens with a hard-drinking cop, Matthew Scudder (played by Bridges), whose career and alcoholism go off the rails when an arrest of a drug dealer turns violent and Scudder is forced to shoot the suspect dead. After a bender we see a cleaned up Scudder accepting his six-month sobriety chip at an AA meeting; alcohol has wrecked his career, his marriage, while his relationship with his daughter made it. Scudder’s is soon lured to a high profile private party with pimps, drug dealers, and hookers; one of these players, Chance Walker (Brooks) a former rival from his days as a cop. So why is an on-the-wagon ex-cop turned private eye rubbing elbows with drug dealers, pimps, and hookers? Good question; because one of these classy escorts, Sunny, is looking for a way out, but naturally she’s scared of her pimp Chance; Scudder tries to reason with Chance, and when things are looking good for Sunny she ends up dead. Scudder, once again feeling down for bringing about the death of someone marginally decent (the drug dealer he shot was in front of his family, so there’s that), wakes up in detox center because he went on another bender. To reconcile the death of Sunny, Scudder goes back to retrace the steps of his binge and befriends yet another prostitute from the soiree, Sarah (Arquette). But her “man” is the “ponytail bad guy” played by the otherwise fine Andy Garcia, who’s a pimp and a drug dealer. Unlike Chance, Garcia’s Angel Maldonado’s the nastier of the two since he’s responsible for killing Sunny. While Scudder’s shaggy everyman Avenger is out to avenge the death of Sunny, a love affair between he and Sarah blossoms, stolen drugs are included in the equation, shifting alliances and doubles crosses occur and once Angel catches wind of Sarah and Scudder’s affair her life is on the line.
Tired yet? Even in a genre where convoluted plots are the mainstay, 8 Million Ways to Die has a machine gun loaded with story points but the four credited screenwriters can’t hit the side of a barn. David Lee Henry, Robert Towne, Oliver Stone, and Lawrence Block; despite Henry being lesser known he’s no slouch with Roadhouse and Out for Justice as neighboring screenplay credits. Stone’s moral pixelations are present with every central character wearing their dubiousness on their sleeves and I’m not quite sure how much Robert Towne weighs in but it feels like Block clocks in the most time since Scudder is his creation. This leading character is initially fascinating, introducing alcoholism and recovery as a way to revise the hard drinking machismo of private investigators and cops in film noir. However, his rise, fall, and fall again occur merely as a set-up to the overelaborate plot. Scudder is played with tact and unguarded energy from Bridges and his character’s introduction felt like Block’s screenwriting might be on par with Joseph Wambaugh. Unlike Wambaugh the complexities of the character go to the wayside for a convoluted plot that embraces all the wrong ideas, leaving the decent ones on the cutting room floor.
8 Million Ways to Die is a clunker; there’s a terrific pool of talent behind and in front of the camera but circumstances and poor judgment lead a movie that had potential off the cliff. It’s overwritten, to be sure, but the most baffling component to this mashup is the presence of the director, or lack thereof.
While I’m always one to champion the auteur theory, there’s not much to indicate Ashby’s strong personality; perhaps he found some connection with the transitional nuances of the central players but the rest unfolds like an awkward form of slumming. A high art director is trying on the guise of low art without anyone stepping in to say that contemporary noir stories have their aesthetic distinctions. The cultural frame of reference would likely welcome another synth-heavy, densely layered crime story (set in Los Angeles no less) but Ashby’s direction doesn’t seem to flatter the sweetly sleazy and violent elements that made movies like Body Heat, To Live and Die in L.A. and 52-Pickup work as well as they did.
Some people have hailed this as an overlooked twilight entry from a great American filmmaker. However, I won’t be blindsided by a good director making a bad film. The picture and sound are crisp and clean, James Howard’s score sounds great and the interviews with cast members and writer Block show some insight to this troubled production. But Ashby completists won’t get his trademark wry humanism and genre fans will be jonesing for a jolt of excitement.