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8 Million Ways to Die

Sometimes, it’s easy to figure out why a film turns out bad. It can feature a hack director (Uwe, despite your vicious left hook, I’m looking right at you), an obnoxious “star” (anything with Tom Green) or a terrible script (take your pick): it might even feature all of those, like some form of noxious cinematic goulash. Sometimes, however, it can be a little more difficult to peg why a film turns out less successfully than intended or even (worst case scenario) why said film fails completely. A film can seem to have everything going for it or, at the very least, enough to at least be an enjoyable romp, yet still wildly miss the mark and flail around like an octopus in tap-shoes. Such is the case with 8 Million Ways to Die, an empty-headed ’80s actioner starring Jeff “The Dude” Bridges and directed by Hal Asby (Harold and Maude, Shampoo, Being There). You’d think that their combined pedigrees would amount to something at least marginally entertaining: you would be quite wrong, indeed.

Plot-wise, 8 Million Ways to Die resembles quite a few other action films, both from the ’80s and beyond. Matt Scudder (Bridges) is a former alcoholic/ex-cop who gets approached by a mysterious woman (Alexandra Paul) at an AA meeting. It turns out that she’s a hooker and wants Matt’s help in leaving her pimp, Chance (Randy Brooks). Since nothing is ever as easy as it first seems, poor Matt is soon involved with a kooky drug-dealer named Angel (a very young Andy Garcia in one of his first feature films) and his “girlfriend” Sarah (Rosanna Arquette). Along the way, Matt must avenge Sunny’s death (for some reason), bring her killers to justice and woo Sarah before they’re all killed by the completely unbalanced Angel.

In many ways, 8 Million Ways to Die resembles a brain-dead re-do of William Friedkin’s far-superior To Live and Die in L.A., a film which came out a mere six months prior. The film is filled with all of the studied cool, washed-out pastels, garish neon and cheesy synths of Friedkin’s film but everything seems to fall flat in 8 Million Ways to Die. Even Bridges, always one of the most reliably interesting actors in the business, seems both bored and bemused by the chaos around him.

Bridges is reliably good, if tuned-out, but he’s completely surrounded by a crowd of actors going for broke in ways that seem to indicate there was some sort of over-acting competition going on behind-the-scenes. Obvious winner? Andy Garcia as the absolutely ludicrous Angel Moldonado. He chews up so much scenery that I’m surprised he didn’t gain 100 pounds on-set. With his ridiculously tiny, greasy ponytail, childishly foul mouth and blinding white suits, Angel seems to be the spiritual forefather for John Turturro’s Jesus Quintana in The Big Lebowski. Imagine “the Jesus” as a James Bond villain and you have some idea of the sheer stupidity on display here. Toss in a performance by Arquette that could best be described as “probably high” and a jaw-clenching shoutathon from Randy Brooks as Chance, the nicest pimp on the silver screen and the whole things seems like a particularly bad dinner-theater production that Bridges somehow stumbled into.

Thus far, we have a few potentially toxic ingredients in this little stew: over-the-top, unlikable acting; a stereotypically cheesy score; absolutely dated mise en scene; a Scooby Doo level of mystery-solving that involves finding the cat ring that matches a pair of cat earrings. Where the film really begins to distinguish itself, however, is with its abysmally terrible script. Not only is the film needlessly confusing (I found myself needing to draw a chart of the various characters’ relationships until I realized that this was more work than the filmmakers point into their project and I tore it up in disgust) but the sense of cause-and-effect is broken, to say the least. Characters act in whatever manner seems handy to the story, at the moment, with no regards to how anything actually fits together. There was so much random activity going on that it seemed both silly and insulting to even attempt to tie it into a traditional “private eye” framework: with a story this nonsensical, what’s there to investigate and solve?

With a bad script, of course, comes some bad dialogue and 8 Million Ways to Die gives us some real howlers. Bridges explains the film’s title and needlessly ties the movie into The Naked City when he states that, “In this city, there are eight million ways to die.” Awesome. Sunny hits on Matt by telling him that “The street light makes my pussy hair glow in the dark,” a line which she delivers in precisely the same manner as one might give directions to a stranger on the street. The big “climax” of the film involves a stand-off between Angel and his gang, Matt and Chance and predominantly involves the cast yelling, “Fuck you!” “No, fuck you!” for the better part of 10 minutes. Ironically, this actually counts as some of the best, canniest writing in the entire film. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Jeff Bridges and Andy Garcia yell “Fuck you” at each other like they were cycling through emotions in an actors’ workshop. Now show me confusion…good! Show me boredom…excellent! Now pretend that you’re hungry…fantastic!

As I mentioned earlier, 8 Million Ways to Die seems to be a pretty curious failure. There’s a great director (Ashby’s Being There and Harold and Maude are cinematic staples) and a good cast: what went wrong? In this case, if I may pop on my deerstalker and play detective, I thing I might know where to lay at least a little of the blame. When one examines the credits, one notices that 8 Million Ways to Die is adapted from the book of the same name by a couple of screenwriters: Oliver Stone and David Lee Henry. Stone should be familiar to just about anyone but David Lee Henry is actually the more illuminating of the two: Henry, you see, is also the genius scribe behind Charles Bronson’s The Evil That Men Do (easily one of Chuck’s worst, meanest films), Patrick Swayze’s Road House and Steven Seagal’s Out For Justice.

And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen: the auteur behind Harold and Maude and Being There, two of the wittiest, liveliest comedies ever made, once directed a dumb ’80s action film starring Jeff Bridges and written by the lunkhead who brought us Out For Justice. Was there ever any way this thing could have been a contender?