Released (dumped) in the early part of the summer of 1986, 8 Million Ways to Die turned out to be the final film of one of the most endearing filmmakers from the New Hollywood era. While guys like Altman, Scorsese, Lucas, Spielberg and DePalma may have made more immediate and galvanizing films during the 1970s, Hal Ashby’s unbroken streak of human-scale masterpieces is pretty much unprecedented. Beginning with 1970’s The Landlord and ending with 1979’s Being There (with Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory and Coming Home in-between), Ashby represented all that was good about socially conscious studio filmmaking. Then, almost overnight, he was out of fashion with Hollywood. In the 1980s, movies started to be packaged, and Ashby’s modest humanism in films like Second-Hand Hearts and The Slugger’s Wife failed to connect with audiences. His Iconoclast stature got him labeled as “trouble” in the ’80s. By the time Ashby got the job directing 8 Million Ways to Die it was almost seen as a last-ditch effort to make a hit—a fallen master’s attempt at redemption.
Based on one of crime writer’s Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder novels, 8 Million Ways to Die is an odd entry in a peculiar 1980s genre: the cops-and-drugs big-city thriller. Movies as varied as Beverly Hills Cop and Tequila Sunrise saw a lone law enforcement officer going after a Mr. Big drug lord. Cocaine was the drug of choice and the city of Los Angeles was where everyone went to get high or famous—or both. The title, of course, refers to New York City, not Los Angeles. That odd bit of dislocation is the first hint of the schizophrenic nature of the film version of 8 Million Ways to Die. Block sets his Scudder novels in New York City, but Ashby felt at home in California. He used the Block novel (and the initial screen adaptation by Oliver Stone and David Lee Henry) as a jumping-off point for his take on a modern L.A. noir. The film 8 Million Ways to Die has car chases, intense verbal showdowns, shout-outs—all the things required in your standard cops-and-drugs thriller. Ashby directs these bits of business with no-fuss finesse. But car chases and shoot-outs don’t interest him. What does interest him are characters under duress due to professional or personal obligations. He’s also intrigued by how a city like L.A. can operate on currents of fear, drugs, and status while its citizens are in a constant state of self-improvement.
And Ashby’s somewhat disregard for genre tropes is just one of the factors that led to his dismissal after shooting was completed. In his fine Ashby biography Being Hal Ashby, Nick Dawson chronicles in painful detail how the production company grew unhappy with what Ashby was shooting. Ashby may not have had a hit in years, but his reputation as an actors’ director was still untarnished. That’s how he was able to attract people like Jeff Bridges, Rosanna Arquette and Andy Garcia to the project. Stories of Ashby allowing actors to improvise on earlier films had reached the point of urban legend status by the time of 8 Million Ways to Die. It is believed that he basically discarded the script and had the actors improvise all their lines. This seems highly unlikely. While, yes, Ashby allowed his actors to explore a given scene, the screenplay provided the structure for the actors to interact with one another. (Along with Stone and Henry, uncredited rewrites were provided by Robert Towne, whose scripts for The Last Detail and Shampoo remain models of literate craftsmanship.) The final edit of 8 Million Ways to Die was done without Ashby’s involvement and this has led to speculation that the final film does not represent his vision. It is believed that he would’ve chosen different takes and allowed for more character development. (A former editor who won an Oscar for editing In the Heat of the Night, Ashby was known for his extended post-production process that allowed him to massage the film into shape.) But the scenes that are used in the final film were shot by Ashby, and what finally emerges is an at times awkwardly paced film with abrupt transitions, yet still manages flashes of brilliance. Like James Bridges’ criminally underseen Mike’s Murder, (another L.A.-set character study that was mistreated by the studio and re-edited without the director’s input), 8 Million Ways to Die is a curio from the decade of excess worthy of rediscovery. It’s a fine swan song for Ashby.
The opening-credits sequence is a real stunner. It’s a near vertigo-inducing helicopter shot of the L.A. skyline that surveys the maze-like freeway system. The shot eventually focuses on a car making its way down a long stretch of freeway. In voiceover, Scudder laments about how he doesn’t understand the escalating murder rate. (The shot is so evocative of the L.A. infrastructure you wonder if David Fincher used it as inspiration for the follow-the-taxi murder set piece in Zodiac.) We are then introduced to Scudder (Bridges) and his partner Joe Durkin (Vyto Ruginis), narcotics officers of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department who are attempting to serve an arrest warrant for low-level drug dealer Hector Lopez (Wilfredo Hernandez). When Hector puts up a struggle, Scudder overreacts and shoots him dead in front of his family. This causes Scudder to spiral into a drunken stupor that eventually costs him his job, his wife and daughter, and any sense of moral authority. All of this occurs within the first 10-15 minutes of the film. Scudder’s downward spiral is handled in a near wordless montage that has the frame filled with out-of-focus colored lights and snatches of dialogue informing us of what’s happening. The cinematography by Stephen H Burum (The Outsiders, Body Double) is at times quite garish, with ripe reds and blues almost leaving a smear on the screen. The harsh daylight scenes suggest that danger no longer flourishes at night.
The movie doesn’t really get rolling until Scudder gets his six-month sobriety badge at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. The scene is vintage Ashby as a character seems to be talking honestly but is really still just trying to maintain control of a situation. As Scudder talks, the camera takes in all the other members of the group. We quickly notice cigarettes and soda cans as telltale signs of more acceptable forms of addiction. (There’s a sly running gag of Scudder always ordering a Coke whenever he’s in a bar. The word “coke” becomes humorously interchangeable.) Scudder may be six months sober, but he is far from ready to take on the world on a day-to-day basis. 8 Million Ways to Die is the chronicle of the first days of a dried-out alcoholic re-entering the world and seeing if he can resist temptation. He can’t.
Scudder inexplicably finds himself invited to a high-end private party complete with high price hookers and illegal gambling. He’s the guest of Sunny (Alexandra Paul), a popular girl whose out-of-it breathiness barely conceals her fear. (Paul’s one-note acting style is perfectly suited for the character of Sunny.) The party is being hosted by Chance (Randy Brooks), a reformed drug dealer who wants respectability, even if it means pretending to go legit. Chance’s second-in-command is Sarah (Arquette), who makes sure everyone is having a good time, especially Angel Moldonado (Garcia). It turns out Sunny is afraid for her life. Back at Scudder’s place, she tries to seduce him into protecting her. She undresses and says, “The street light makes my pussy hair glow in the dark—cotton candy.” With an offer like that how can Scudder resist? (While impossible to know which writer wrote which line, you can have fun guessing with such memorable dialogue.) Scudder, with his cop instincts still functioning, resists temptation long enough to feel protective of Sunny. When he fails to protect her and she is brutally murdered in broad daylight, he falls off the wagon. Waking up in a hospital, having checked himself in after his drunken bender, Scudder finally hits bottom. It turns out hitting bottom is what is necessary in order to do his job effectively.
For Bridges, 8 Million Ways to Die represented an interesting entry in his filmography at the time. While it is generally accepted that Bridges is one of our finest actors, in 1986 he was simply a reliable actor in good movies who seemed thisclose to being a major star. He was just coming off his fine Oscar-nominated work in Starman (1984) and the box office success of Jagged Edge (1985). Signing up for a quirky cops-and-drugs drama is not the kind of thing an actor does when he has that much momentum. But Bridges’ inherent goodness is what the movie needs and is in keeping with Ashby’s fascination with broken men putting themselves back together. (It should be noted, having not read a Matt Scudder novel, that I have no idea if Bridges’ portrayal of the character is true to the source material. Then again, the book is the book and the movie is the movie.) In the opening scenes Bridges is sporting his “King Kong” look. He isn’t really given much to do in the scenes of him falling down drunk. (Interestingly, Jane Fonda would do walking-drunk mannerisms to perfection in the Christmas ’86 release The Morning After.) But when the movie picks up after Scudder has been sober for six months, Bridges (now sporting what looks like William Hurt’s mustache from Body Heat), settles into the role and carries us through the more unsavory sections of the film. The scene where he returns home, having realized he failed in protecting Sunny, has real power. He says very little, but we can see for the first time that Scudder is starting to take responsibility for all that he’s done wrong.
Wanting to avenge Sunny’s death, Scudder teams up with Sarah. Arquette, a fearless, wide-awake actress, matches up beautifully with Bridges. Her Sarah is a street smart girl who knows something Scudder is just starting to comprehend: the more street smart you are the more your life can be in danger. Sarah is right to be skeptical about Scudder’s ability to protect her. At the same time Scudder needs her in order to understand the new breed of lawlessness that cocaine has brought upon L.A. Like Sunny, Sarah attempts to seduce Scudder but the encounter ends embarrassingly for both of them. Their morning-after talk is quite moving as they both reveal to each other how much they’ve sacrificed. He’s lost self-respect, she’s lost self-worth.
This leads them to set up Angel the high-rolling drug dealer. And Andy Garcia’s characterization of Angel turns out to be the film’s ace in the hole. It wouldn’t be until the following summer’s gangster throwback The Untouchables that people started to take notice of Garcia, but for the few who saw him here it was impossible to shake his scary-sexy performance. While Tony Montana had yet to achieve a permanent place in pop culture, Angel Moldonado is clearly cut from the same cloth. He’s the complete opposite of Scudder. He’s clean-shaven, well-dressed, completely in control of every situation. In a terrifically tense scene, Scudder pathetically attempts to entrap Angel with an offer to partner up in the drug trade. Eating snow cones, the two men joust in a game of who’s going to break first. (Having both actors eat snow cones is the kind of bit of business that actors and directors love and editors hate.) When Angel seems to lose his temper we can see he is still in control of his emotions. It’s his put-on of a hot-tempered Latin drug dealer that makes him so frightening. He’s extremely likable but clearly a man not to be taken lightly. Garcia is clearly having a ball with the kind of young-actor role that gets peoples’ attention. (I particularly like how Garcia uses his accent to purposely mispronounce certain characters’ names. Scudder becomes “Scooder,” and Sarah becomes “Sa-DAH.”)
The scene everyone remembers is the climatic showdown with Angel, having made Sarah his permanent girlfriend, and Scudder, having rigged Angel’s 125 kilos of cocaine with gasoline. The scene is charged with the kind of hair-trigger cocaine craziness that must have shocked audiences at the time. It’s a showdown fueled by ego, not guns. (“Cut her loose!” “Cut her the fuck loose!” “I’m gonna cut her loose!” “Hey, Angel, I’m getting high on your shit!”) At one point Scudder says, “I’ve got nothing to lose.” It turns out Ashby had everything to lose, as 8 Million Ways to Die tells the story of a man doing all he can to take control of his life.
Aaron Aradillas is a San Antonio-based film critic and journalist. He also co-writes and co-produces video essays with Matt Zoller Seitz.