IF YOU SAW 8 MILLION WAYS TO DIE (1986) via the movie equivalent to Downbeat Magazine’s Blindfold Test—sans credits, prior knowledge, or preconceived context—it could seem like a film that had come unstuck in time. Draping itself in the moody trappings of neo-noir action-romance, it boasts minimal action and its romantic pièce de résistance features a drunken failed seduction that culminates with the femme fatale vomiting down the hero’s pants. Its slouching posture suggests an affinity for Robert Altman’s loser-reverie The Long Goodbye (1973), updated with all the cold accoutrements of mid-’80s Hollywood power-tripping: would-be big-shots in louche suits, peroxided women in slinky dresses and puffed-out hair, with ample cocaine to socially lubricate all the aspirational-delusional gears betwixt and between.
Five examples of the movie’s commitment to a candid, non-rote view of the greater LA basin: The long opening helicopter shot under the credits, through uninviting smog and over ugly-beautiful freeways at sunset, touching down on a police raid that takes a shortcut through Beth Israel Cemetery. The precarious Malibu hillside house with a trolley, serving as a private casino/brothel; the PoBoys supermarket in Compton, where dope is stashed in decorative fireplace logs; the proud villain’s new home, in the process of being renovated as an homage to Gaudi (he can’t shut up about it). And the big standoff is in an empty Long Beach warehouse, a scene whose rising absurdity floats through the plot holes and comes out on the other side of Pulp Fiction (1994) and Ben Wheatley’s recent Free Fire—a clusterfuck of miscalculations and missed cues instead of a composed or slapstick bloodbath.
The pungent acting of Jeff Bridges and Rosanna Arquette generates a steady pressure against the pop-thriller form: 8 Million Ways to Die’s commercial intentions take a backseat to a lifelike undertow of cruddy, hemmed-in despair and self-abnegating laceration. Breaking down the hoary dynamic of a private cop entangled with an upmarket hooker working her way to madam, the two dive into their parts with the fortitude of long-distance drunks competing in a blackout triathlon. Bridges’s sweaty armpits and demeanor are not some proto-Lebowski window dressing; like the offhand loathing in Arquette’s voice and glare, they’re as lived-in as dirty laundry.
Through Andy Garcia’s fledgling drug kingpin Angel Maldanado, you’d pick up the lineage of Scarface and Miami Vice. (You might not be surprised to learn Oliver Stone wrote the first draft of 8 Million Ways before he tackled Scarface.) The romantic-triangle offense also recalls the stylish modalities of Against All Odds (1983, another Jeff Bridges vehicle). But precisely none of this squares with the movie’s stream of wormy, digressive interludes, weird background activities, and its lowdown sympathy for embittered attitudes, terrible decision-making, and destructive/defensive tendencies. Playing like an extended flashback to the freestyle movies of the ’70s, 8 Million Ways starts to feel less like a crime story than a brutal, thinly veiled Hollywood parable.
Bridges’s and Arquette’s characters could as easily be a luckless bottom-rung screenwriter and a performer struggling to break out of some exploitation-ghetto. Garcia’s sharky dealer has the patter of up-and-coming CAA agent, backstabbing manager, or pushy, raging-ego producer down pat. Wiry and overbearing, pouring the charm on like a bottle of Paco Rabanne, Garcia bridges the voracious attention-snorting of Al Pacino’s Scarface and the high-strung/strung-out manner Michael Imperioli would bring to The Sopranos (1999–2007). Beyond the candied-cocaine window dressing, Maldanado is the distillation of every hard-nosed showbiz hustler—his ethnicity is the only thing separating him from the other ponytailed high rollers in the Industry.
It’s not a huge leap from here to surmise that (a) the director was no run-of-the-mill hack, (b) that he had a major ax to grind with the production’s moneymen, and (c) that pahis shoot was troubled and interfered with from preproduction through to the bitter end. 8 Million Ways to Die could almost be Exhibit A—or patient zero—in the annals of how the auteurs of the ’70s were blindsided in the ’80s by the new deal-making, numbers-crunching players in the industry. No real surprise then that the director turns out to be Hal Ashby, only a few years after the peak of his career (at least commercially) with Coming Home (1978) and Being There (1979). Or that this will be his final picture: Many people (including Arquette, in an interview on the 8 Million Ways disk) believe that the toll it took is what killed him. (I don’t know whether Hollywood can be directly linked to pancreatic cancer, but I wouldn’t rule it out.)
The sad joke here is how much company Ashby had: The title of William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in LA (1985) is readily confused with Ashby’s project, and while Friedkin adapted to the new regime better—more efficiently—than many, he was likewise slipping down the pecking order. By then, Altman was even deeper in movie purgatory (if soon to rebound), Sam Peckinpah was already dead after an even more ignominious last run, Arthur Penn was utterly washed-up, etc. If the post–New Hollywood wave of high-concept, exhaustively engineered features had a byword, it was the prefix “over-”: over-the-top, overbearing, overdetermined.
The conventional wisdom on 8 Million Ways is that it represents Ashby’s ultimate defeat by the System, but by the Southern California light of its antihero paradigm (falling apart in rattrap attire), it sabotages the winners’ blueprint. Riding the quixotic train that ran from Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler (and their divergent film adaptations by John Huston, Howard Hawks, and Altman) on through to Ross MacDonald, Warren Zevon, and Cutter’s Way right into a brick wall, Ashby’s film is his Big Kiss-Off to the whole rotten business. It cries out for Zevon’s “Ain’t That Pretty at All” and “Desperadoes Under the Eaves” on the sound track in place of James Newton Howard’s incongruous synthesized score (every fat, satisfied note of which evokes the exact movie Ashby didn’t make).
Maybe if the execs hadn’t taken the final cut away from Ashby he could have sculpted the footage into something like a beautifully dissociated, bifurcated seesaw between an alcoholic’s grievous miscalculations and his assessment looking back from the sanctuary of Alcoholics Anonymous. As it stands, it’s still a remarkable, appropriately messy slice of spiritual autobiography, seldom less than alive and surprising (how many movie gangsters have kept a full snow cone bar in their trunk?). It makes a “hip” prestige saga like The Player look tidy, soft, and terminally “on message.” There were eight million ways to get high in the ’80s: If certain superstars (or executives) used to have their personal assistants blow coke up their asses with a straw, then Ashby’s film is a fitting memorial to the ones who found themselves on the wrong end of those straws.