8 Million Ways to Die (1986) is Hal Ashby's final major motion picture. Jeff Bridges is Matt Scudder, an ex-L.A. County Sheriff's detective who has to resign from his position because of his alcoholism. His wife and daughter cannot take his alcoholism any more either, so Scudder's now alone and attempting to recover from his addiction. Six months without a drink, a fellow member of A.A. asks Scudder for a mysterious favor: could you help this person?
Scudder knows no facts beyond the first name of the person he is to help: Sunny (Alexandra Paul). For whatever reason, Scudder accepts to help and shows at a fancy mansion where Sunny is revealed to be a high-price prostitute in the middle of a party. The guest list includes Sunny's "pimp," Chance (Randy Brooks), a fellow call-girl, Sarah (Rosanna Arquette), and debonair and wealthy Angel (Andy Garcia). Sunny wants Scudder's help but will not say why. As she awkwardly tries to manipulate him into helping him, even poorly trying to seduce him, eventually Scudder asks her what she wants. This direct question she is able to answer: help me escape. To the airport. Tomorrow. A drive to the airport is not an arduous task for Scudder. Scudder takes Sunny to the bank and notes to her that most folks do not keep their airline ticket in a safe-deposit box. One more stop before the airport, but Sunny doesn't make it: she is kidnapped and killed. Scudder gets drunk and blacks out.
From a story from two novels by Lawrence Block, 8 Million Ways to Die and A Stab in the Dark, and an adapted screenplay by Oliver Stone, 8 Million Ways to Die is anything but traditional and conventional. While the narrative is a mystery with Bridges's Scudder as sleuth, 8 Million Ways to Die is an ironically-titled film, as there is really only one way to die in this film: if Scudder has one more drink, as the nurse on the detox ward tells him, he is going to die. The film is a portrait of an alcoholic who really wants to drink and believes he is able to help himself by helping the memory of a dead woman and by trying to rescue another woman who wants help but is reluctant to ask for it. The film keys in on this theme and is quite sensitive to Scudder's true struggle. Like a sobering alcoholic, it appears to Scudder that alcohol is everywhere: Scudder's apartment is behind a dive bar; the circles in which Scudder frequents during his investigation everyone is having a drink; and when he tries to question someone, like Sarah, Scudder sees only the drink tray making the rounds and not the myriad guests walking around. So if it were to seem ridiculous that Scudder would help someone he does not know and risk his life for it (as it is revealed some of the folks in Sunny's circle are some dangerous criminals), Scudder has no choice: helping some one else, any one, is the only way that he is going to help himself.
Stephen H. Burum's photography with Hal Ashby's compositions are often striking. The opening title sequence of the film shot over Los Angeles from presumably a helicopter follow the myriad freeways of the city. In an interesting move, the shots move from downward captures of the city to a slow-camera shift which shows the freeways moving up and down, as if the motorists are climbing into the sky or down into the city's depths. 8 Million Ways to Die, despite its history and legacy, is another human Ashby film; and his compositions emphasize this primarily: as it is a film about characters, Ashby lets his characters be. In a fantastic dialogue sequence, Arquette's Sarah has gotten drunk the night before in front of Bridges's Scudder. Scudder had every opportunity to get drunk with her, as well, but resists. She vomits on him and passes out. In the morning, she sweetly cleans up Scudder's small apartment and this endearing gesture allows her to open up to Scudder. He, unsurprisingly, opens up to her. The camera appears to be capturing this scene from the viewpoint of the counter top over which the two are talking. In the out-of-focus background, there is a picture of Scudder's daughter, just behind him.
Garcia's Angel and Scudder have a really interesting confrontation over shaved-ice and flavored treats (the "Snow Cone.") The scene is multi-layered as so much is going on. Ashby plays with the camera and floats in and out, not erratically, as the two men talk with charged emotion. The scene is really two fantastic actors giving accompanying performances, and Ashby is just ever-so slightly helping them along. In another interesting sequence, Scudder confronts Chance in a park while he is jogging. Ashby's initial composition of the confrontation looks like an arbitrary composition from Pasolini; yet when Chance's bodyguard (Tommy "Tiny" Lister) makes an entrance into frame, the scene is revealed as meticulous and calculated. Very nice.
Stone's original screenplay for the film did not survive the filming process nor did Ashby. He was fired by the producers after the principal photography, so there is no Ashby final cut. The best source of learning about the production history of 8 Million Ways to Die is from Nick Dawson's biography, Being Hal Ashby (the link also serves as one for purchase and reference, as any and all objective facts in this review are derived from it.) I would refer any one interested to Dawson's book, as it is far more detailed in facts (which, interestingly, calls for more questions). To say in a very understated manner, the production was a fiasco, and the film did poorly commercially and critically. Seemingly, most criticism derives from the film's narrative: crime thriller or character portrait? As a plot-driven film, it does oscillate. I find, however, narratives in films their most least-interesting aspect, so my take will undeniably be different from the majority. Bridges, Brooks, Arquette, Garcia, and Paul give excellent performances. From all my searching, 8 Million Ways to Die appears absent from Region-One DVD. A shame, as any film from Ashby well merits a viewing, as he was a true artist.