An ugly, ill-fitting coda to Ashby’s career.
Beloved directors rarely possess filmographies that conclude on an upswing, but few final films have quite the air of tragedy and disappointment as Hal Ashby’s 8 Million Ways to Die. The 1986 film was marred by Ashby’s own substance abuse issues, a hostile set and an incomplete screenplay cobbled together from writers like Oliver Stone, Robert Towne and R. Lance Hill. It is a warped and inconsistent mess that captures a master at his lowest creative trough. But it, like all Ashby films, still features enough of his humanism to remain a fascinating failure.
The film was adapted from the Lawrence Block novel of the same name, featuring his long tenured character Matthew Scudder, here played by Jeff Bridges. Years later, the Scudder novels would be done justice by Scott Frank and Liam Neeson with the underrated A Walk Among the Tombstones, but here, the alcoholic ex-cop from NYC is transplanted to Los Angeles, with a visual palette cribbed from “Miami Vice.” A similarly ostentatious visual language would work out great for Miami Blues four years later, but it feels out of place here for the source material.
There’s a typically shaggy dog noir at play here, with a young Andy Garcia as an enterprising drug dealer and a high-priced call girl’s murder to solve. The real meat, though, isn’t in the usual beats of the crime drama, but in the languid way the film’s plot is set up. Scudder’s history is transformed here, but his alcoholism and its place in ending his career as a lawman are intact. It’s in those opening scenes that Ashby seems to be going a little autobiographical, as the specificity of Scudder’s rock bottom feels so palpable and painful to behold.
Bridges wouldn’t be the ideal Scudder for a more traditional adaptation, but he’s pretty fantastic in the role, despite it admittedly not being his finest work. Ashby was locked out of the editing room for this film’s completion, so many of the performers have said the takes used in the final cut were far from the best. But even odds and ends of Bridges in a role like this contain the same basic sincerity and emotional believability that has made him a giant amongst his peers. It’s a fine match for what’s left of Ashby’s perspective, lending a mixed-up noir cutout protagonist a complexity and depth the script just doesn’t create.
But that strength is also the film’s biggest weakness. Because the script was constantly in flux, multiple scenes are improvisational to a fault. For a more experimental film with a cast more experienced at such working methods, having key scenes wind up as playgrounds for actors trying out different things could be a Godsend. However, this being a murder mystery, mixing up key exposition and narrative progression in overlong scenes of vamping and emphatic repetition feels offensive. This kind of story requires a clarity and a forward momentum that is sorely lacking in the film’s doughy middle.
The entire affair climaxes in an abandoned warehouse like a lot of action thrillers, but features the principal players screaming and cursing at one another from yards away rather than any last-minute twists or turns. The requisite hail of gunfire that concludes this extended sequence plays less like dramatic catharsis and more like the orchestra at an awards show shooing the winners off the stage. That it leads to anything resembling a satisfying ending is again a testament to Bridges’ ability to sell questionable writing, making Scudder’s journey temporarily feel worthwhile even with a mountain of evidence to the contrary.
Rosanna Arquette, too, is quite compelling on screen in her role as the primary love interest, which is all the more impressive given the entire film treats its women like pawns and MacGuffins instead of people. The final product is an ugly, ill-fitting coda to Ashby’s career, a CV chock full of deeply touching portraits and timely explorations of an ever-changing society. That there’s still so much of him wrapped up inside this otherwise disgusting morass just makes its failure all the more tragic.