8 Million Ways to Die 1986

This Friday, the big screen adaptation of Lawrence Block’s A Walk Among the Tombstones hits theaters. Liam Neeson, riding high on his action renaissance sparked by Taken, plays Block’s iconic private eye and recovering alcoholic Matthew Scudder. It’s a damn good book and from what I’ve heard, Scott Frank’s film for the most part stays faithful and captures the grittiness and black soul of Block’s vision.

This isn’t the first time a Scudder novel has made its way to film. Back in the summer of ’86, Jeff Bridges first played him in Hal Ashby’s 8 Million Ways to Die. The adaptation had some truly solid writers behind it: Oliver Stone, David Lee Henry (Road House), and Robert Towne (Chinatown). This turned out to be the final film for Ashby, who was one of the most captivating filmmakers of the ‘70s. He was a socially conscious director whose output represents some of the most heartfelt human dramas of the era (Harold & Maude, The Last DetailBeing There).

I’m not sure why Ashby decided to take on a crime movie about a heavy-boozing cop who butts heads with a drug kingpin. Maybe it was an old master’s last reach for redemption after his work had gone out of style. Whatever the reason, 8 Million Ways to Die was a total flop. In a recent interview with Screenwriters Utopia, Block reveals some of the reason why. The script wasn’t finished when Ashby began shooting. Jeff Bridges, who apparently is not too happy with the film, told him that they used all the worst takes. The final cut was taken out of Ashby’s hands, resulting in an uneven product that manages to recover thanks to strong performances by Bridges and Andy Garcia. Moments of Ashby’s humanism manage to shine through, resulting in a decent final bow for the legendary filmmaker.

The film moves the setting from NYC to LA, which allows Ashby to explore the paradox of the city’s obsessions with new wave health trends and piles of cocaine. It begins with Scudder and his L.A.P.D. brethren doing a drug bust that leads to him fatally shooting a small-time drug dealer wielding a Louisville slugger. The incident drives Scudder to drown his remorse in hard liquor – blacking out and ruining his relationship with his estranged wife and daughter.

We then jump forward six months, to Scudder picking up his six-month sober chip at an AA meeting. This acts as a great set-up for the rest of the film, which shoves temptation upon temptation in Scudder’s sober face. Can he resist temptation in a city of excess? What better test than attending a ritzy party populated with high-end hookers, booze, and card tables?

He’s invited there by Sunny (Alexandra Paul), a hooker who can barely hide that she’s terrified for her life. Scudder gets close to her and when she winds up dead, he’s drawn back into the world of LA crime. Only this time he can’t hide behind a badge or booze. There’s a powerful moment after he’s sobered up after Sunny’s death and he returns home. He goes through her things and it finally hits him that he failed to keep her safe. Her death weighs heavy on him, but being sober, he’s finally able to take responsibility. Ashby and Bridges do a strong job portraying how Scudder must put himself together to find her killer. The best detective stories are always more about the personal issues of the one detecting, rather than the actual crime. In that regard, 8 Million Ways to Die nails it.

This is when Scudder (and the film) finds its drive. He teams up with another hooker, the streetwise and brazen Sarah (Roseanna Arquette). Their target is Angel,  big time drug dealer played with absolute relish by Andy Garcia. More refined than Tony Montoya, Angel appreciates fringe architecture and travels with a snow cone dispensary in his trunk (not a drug euphemism, an actual snow cone kit). Him and Scudder share a truly intense scene in which the ex-cop is trying to entrap him by offering to become his partnership in the drug trade. Both men exchange phony smiles as they lick snow cones, all the while coming so close to taking each other’s heads off. Hands down my favorite scene in the film.

The big climactic scene involves a whole lotta screaming between all actors in a warehouse piled with coke and Feds. It’s thick with tension, given lots more weight due to Scudder’s line “I don’t have anything to lose!” His drinking already cost him everything, all he has left is vengeance against the man who killed Sunny. This is his last ditch effort for redemption and Ashby loads it with real human drama. While it went fairly unnoticed upon release, 8 Million Ways to Die is worth seeking out for its performances and the hints of Ashby’s humanism that shine through.

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