When Tough Guys Ruled the Cinema- Episode 16:8 Million Ways to Die
“8 Million Ways to Die” was gritty, sleazy, in-your-face film noir that capped of the career of one of the most prolific directors of the ‘70s, Hal Ashby. Ashby’s films often left a distinctive mark on the subconscious, and tackled unique variations on the human condition. These movies often tackled the concept of a love story that was bordered around unusual circumstances (“Harold and Maude” and “Coming Home”), or just the trials of being human while trying to make a difference (“Bound for Glory” and “Shampoo”). “8 Million Ways to Die” has received negative press because it was not on par with those types of movies that made Ashby’s career, but this is an underrated classic that deserves to be seen.
Sadly, it can only be seen on VHS.
The screenplay was based on the Lawrence Block novel of the same name, and was reworked by Oliver Stone shortly before his directing career took off. He creates a well-written, hardboiled and deceptively intriguing mystery. The elements are all removed from classic film noir: The down and out former cop, the prostitute, the former boxing star and an excellent villain.
The premise focuses on Matt Scudder (Jeff Bridges), an alcoholic cop that makes a fatal mistake, which is made clear within the first 10 minutes of the picture. However, sobriety for Scudder only leads him into a darker world of perplexing mystery.
Bridges is one of the few actors that can portray a tough guy or a nerd and become engulfed in the role. Each step of this performance gives him a chance to flex his acting muscles. At the beginning, we watch him hit rock bottom and almost sympathize with the mistake he made in his career. He is the classic film-noir hero with the dark past that captures the audience’s imagination.
But the real scene stealer is Andy Garcia as snow cone-loving drug lord Angel Moldonado, who resembles a toned down “Scarface.” (Stone wrote that too, by the way.) However, one major difference is that Garcia’s performance is more authentic than Pacino’s sloppy, scene-stealing performance.
The leads performances are enhanced by a wonderful supporting cast, which includes the lovely Rosanna Arquette as a friend of a prostitute that turns up dead, and Randy Brooks as Willie “Chance” Walker (a boxer turned pimp). Arquette and Brooks match Bridges’ intensity, and allow the action to crackle on the screen.
The only weak spot in the cast comes from former “Baywatch” hottie Alexandra Paul as the prostitute, whose name is Sunny. Her performance is just not up to the standards of the rest of the cast, and that is why are post-”Baywatch” career has been spent mostly on Lifetime.
The performances may draw you in, but the gritty tone set by the cinematography is what keeps you stuck in this world. Film noir was often filmed in black-and-white, which provides the dark existence needed, and this film creates that vibe using an interesting color scheme – when we need to feel the darkness, or brightness it is palpable on screen.
In a world where death lurks around every corner, “8 Million Ways to Die” is surprisingly upbeat at times. Ashby loved to focus on the human condition, and this film has the simple message that we sometimes lose ourselves and have to fight to come back to what we once were.
This is a great film to remember Ashby for, and his love for the human spirit is present throughout.