2017 Film Essays

Adrenaline and Virtuosic Filmmaking: Hal Ashby’s ‘8 Million Ways to Die’

The last directorial credit for New Hollywood legend Hal Ashby is the near-forgotten 1986 crime thriller 8 Million Ways to Die. Starring Jeff Bridges as Matthew Scudder, an alcoholic ex-cop in pursuit of the criminal thugs who murdered a prostitute named Sunny (Alexandra Paul), Ashby’s film boasts a script co-written by Oliver Stone. The film is awash in the usual hallmarks of an 80s crime thriller: neon lights, synthesized music and sun-drenched Los Angeles — all of which Nicolas Winding Refn recycled for 2011’s Drive. With Rosanna Arquette as Sarah, a high-priced madam and Scudder’s love interest, and Andy Garcia as Angel Maldonado, a pimp and drug dealer rounding out the cast, it’s not too hard to situate yourself in the film’s generic context. The plot gets convoluted, as Scudder attempts to nail Maldonado for murdering Sunny while trying to stay sober. And it’s a story most have seen before, for sure. Where the film really gets interesting, though, is in a chaotic Mexican standoff near its conclusion.

Ashby’s camera floats down from the rafters of a massive, nearly empty warehouse about the size of an airplane hangar. It’s an exchange, typical of crime thrillers of any decade. Scudder has a huge pile of Maldonado’s cocaine, and Maldonado has Sarah, who Scudder wants returned unharmed. Scudder is backed up by Chance (Randy Brooks), and, unbeknownst to Maldonado (who has his own goon for backup and his hand taped to a shotgun with the business end taped around Sarah’s neck), his old buddies from the police force wait to spring a trap.

This all sounds pretty paint-by-numbers until the exchange begins in earnest. By bringing his backup goon, Maldonado has violated Scudder’s terms. Scudder says, three times, “I said only you inside.” Maldonado, with his goon and Sarah, walk towards Scudder from the other end of the warehouse. The film cuts back and forth between the relatively stationary Scudder and the slowly advancing trio. The sheer size of the space means it takes forever for the gap to close entirely.

Then, the scene escalates. They all start to shout at one another. They’re cursing increasingly and without making much sense. Scudder threatens to burn the cocaine, which pushes Maldonado further into a rage. The seconds are all yelling, too. Scudder keeps demanding that Maldonado “cut her loose” over and over and over again. Tired of waiting, Scudder burns one of the kilos of cocaine. Maldonado goes crazy, screaming at Scudder to put out the fire, repeating that he’ll “cut her loose” if Scudder complies.

This isn’t your typical crime movie exchange of goods, where the players show up and they’ve each got a reasonable level of confidence that they can get out of it. Here, in this warehouse, these people are terrified. And they have no idea if they’ll be able to get what they want.

There are no cool customers here. In this scene, the pervading emotion is panic, and the characters can’t make the other side listen to reason. Scudder keeps burning kilos of cocaine, which drives Maldonado insane, and they both keep screaming “cut her loose” and “I’m gonna cut her loose” — the entire scene becomes a cacophony of noise predicated on fear. It’s not the edge of the knife — it’s the business end of the blade.

The scene goes on like this for almost eight minutes before it explodes into a gunfight. One of the ironies is that the gunfight itself is less exciting than the raw, anarchic parley that precedes it. It’s vibrant, chaotic and virtuosic filmmaking. It embraces the adrenaline of the moment in a way that most other iterations of the Mexican standoff do not. Those other scenes slowly escalate the tension until it boils over, and the bullets fly.

In 8 Million Mays to Die, the standoff scene is off the rails nearly from the start, and the actors (plus Ashby’s staging) keep the energy level explosive throughout. It’s as unconventional an approach as they come, especially with such a time-worn setup. Watching a scene like this makes one think about the depth of unexplored possibilities in genre cinema; it’s enough to invigorate your sense of excitement about even the most seemingly tired of premises.

Brian Brems (@BrianBrems) is an Assistant Professor of English and Film at the College of DuPage, a large two-year institution located in the western Chicago suburbs. He has a Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University in English with a Film & Literature concentration. He has a wife, Genna, and two dogs, Bowie and Iggy.


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