1988 - R - 102 Mins.
|Director: Blake Edwards|
|Producer: Tony Adams|
|Written By: Blake Edwards|
|Starring: Bruce Willis, James Garner, Malcolm McDowell, Mariel Hemingway, Kathleen Quinlan |
|Review by: David Rolston
In 1988 Bruce Willis was still relatively unknown except to fans of the TV series Moonlighting. Like so many other actors who get their big break on the small screen, Willis wanted to establish a career in Motion Pictures while he was hot. Veteran director Blake Edwards best known for his Pink Panther series, saw something in Willis, giving him his first chance in the slapstick romantic comedy Blind Date across from Kim Bassinger who was already a bonafied star at the time following the success of Nine and ½ weeks. Blind Date was a box office dud, and to add insult to injury Willis was upstaged by John Larroquette, another actor best known for his TV work.
None of this prevented Edwards from giving Willis another starring role in his nostalgic ode to the silent film era “Sunset” based on a book by fifties TV director Rod Amateu. Edwards' grandfather J. Gordon Edwards was a successful silent era director with a long career, and I suspect that Edwards had a lot of affection for the subject matter, having been a boy in the 1920’s. In retrospect Edwards affection for the past is exactly what does the film in.
The urban sprawl of the city of Los Angeles in the twenty first century fans out as far as the eye can see, block upon block of buildings contained within the grids defined by surface streets which all run either north to south or east to west. It’s difficult to imagine what the city looked like in the early 1900’s when it was still an arid, dusty agricultural community bordered to the north by scrub brush covered hills and acres of Orange groves. Sunset wants to remind us of L.A.’s past as a cowboy town, when Westerns were Hollywood’s bread and butter genre.
The premise is a good one: former rodeo star Tom Mix (Bruce Willis) the biggest western star in 1920’s Hollywood, accepts the role of Wyatt Earp in a retelling of the Gunfight at the OK Corral, at the insistence of Alfie Alperin (Malcolm McDowell). Alperin has parlayed a franchise of films featuring an acrobatic bowler hat-wearing clown into a successful producing career and has become one of the most influential and successful businessmen in the fledgling movie industry taking hold in Hollywood. Mix is reluctant to get involved with Alperin, but agrees once he learns that Alperin has managed to retain the legendary Earp himself (portrayed by James Garner) to be an advisor.
Sunset asks the question, “what if Mix and Earp were to discover one of their friends has been murdered, and decide to team up and investigate, in the process finding themselves at odds with everyone from Hollywood aristocracy, to the local police, to the mob?”
Sunset has roots in fact. Earp did make his way to Hollywood in his golden years, and befriended Mix; Mix in fact was a Pallbearer at Earp’s funeral in 1929. Alperin is clearly modeled on Charlie Chaplin, and Chaplin did transition from comic actor to director and producer to studio head, and was one of the three co-creators of United Artists.
Of course, Alperin is the villain of the film, and a particularly vile one at that, which makes the Chaplin references of questionable judgment, somewhat along the lines of making a villain out of Mother Theresa or Mister Rogers, but then again Sunset is chock full of poor decisions. Great historical fiction has the potential to reinvigorate our interest in the past by personalizing it, while at the same time illuminating the present in comparison. Sunset is not just an unsuccessful historical fiction; it actually manages to make the period less interesting. Sunset also has some rather dubious politics and promotes illusions about the time period. Nearly every woman in Sunset is some form of prostitute, either literal or figurative. The Mexican population appears only to serve the notion of Tom Mix as man about town, in an embarrassing sequence where a stereotypical senorita lassos Mix into an impromptu tango in the middle of the El Coyote restaurant. And everyone in a position of power is crooked with the exception of Mix and Earp, which doesn’t really jibe with the “Gee wasn’t that a great ol time” vibe that’s supposed to sustain the audience through the ludicrous convolutions of the storyline, and divert attention from the plot holes that abound.
During the period Sunset was made, Edwards had been making a number of what I call “Angry middle aged man” films, movies like “10”, “S.O.B.”, “The Man who loved women” and “Skin deep.” Many of these share a common thematic focus in their depiction of men who are past their prime and feeling that the world has no use for them.
By itself Sunset might easily have been written off as a poorly executed miscalculation, but within the series of other Edwards films it seems very much to be an antidote to the plight of the white man past his prime, or perhaps a fantasy depicting how Edwards imagined things should be. Unlike the fast food, youth media obsessed world of the 80’s and beyond, “Sunset” shows us a a more idyllic time, where the hero is not a twenty something in the prime of his life, but rather a man past his prime. Garner as Wyatt Earp may be in his sixties, but he is still tougher than men half his age, deeply attractive to women younger than the proverbial daughter, and smarter than everyone else put together. Unlike the real world, where old white men are looked at as being square, over the hill, and generally out of touch, in the world of "Sunset" the best and brightest of the generation (Willis as movie superstar Mix) looks to Earp as friend, mentor, role model and sidekick, calling upon him time and again when the odds are long and Mix needs someone tough and capable to help save the day.
In a film about the time when Hollywood first started creating cinematic illusion on a grand scale, Sunset is itself a giant illusion, where every shred of emotional or intellectual truth have been drained, and replaced by a vision of the world that could only appeal to the vanity and self delusion favored by elderly wild west aficionados or perhaps directors named Blake Edwards. “Sunset” is so busy showing what a grand old time it was, or how a tough old guy like Earp could take more punches and deliver more beat downs than any prize fighter in his prime, we don’t really get a chance to learn anything about him, or to find out why he or Mix seem to care about the series of crimes that pepper the plot and throw the two heroes together in one tough scrape after another. The entire film is an exercise in staging old time cowboy stunts, bar room brawls, and shootouts, all of which offer Garner and Willis opportunities to wink at each other and deliver the type of clichéd one liners that would feel equally at home in an Arnold Schwarzenegger film.
The same year that Sunset was released, another Bruce Willis movie insured that he would have a long and successful career in Hollywood as “Die Hard” introduced the world to John McClane. While both “Die Hard” and “Sunset” were released in 1988, they hardly seem of the same decade much less the same year. While both offer action, stunts and tougher than life men, “Die Hard” also offered a character with heart.
So many people love the movies and love movie history, I suspect that there are stories about 1920’s Hollywood that could make for good compelling films, and one only wishes that “Sunset” had aspired to tell one of these stories rather than foisting a diatribe about how things were so much better in the good old days, and perhaps with real characters the viewer might actually care about for 90 minutes.