Matt Scudder (Jeff Bridges) was a police detective in Los Angeles when something happened which sent him over the edge into alcoholism. He was trying to arrest a minor drugs dealer in his own home with his family in the kitchen when the suspect produced a baseball bat and began beating up Scudder's fellow cops. Fearing the man may kill someone, he opened fire and death was the result, with the family looking on in horror, an incident which saw Scudder investigated himself, driving him to the bottle. Now, six months later, he is attending Alcoholics Anonymous and sober again when someone approaches him with a note...
8 Million Ways to Die, the title not a health and safety nightmare but a variation on the old Naked City TV show's opening narration that there were eight million stories in the city, was drawn from one of the Lawrence Block Matt Scudder novels and was all set to be Oliver Stone's follow-up to Salavador when the studio decided they didn't like what he was doing. By all accounts, his version was a lot more faithful to the book than what actually hit the screen, and a lot of that was down to the studio's decision to hire Hal Ashby as a director instead, a man known for his loose style which encouraged improvisation, or at least it did on this shoot when the script was not actually ready by the time they were filming, leaving Ashby and the cast to make it up as they went along.
Maybe that's a good way to make an indie movie on a low budget, but it's not going to make you many friends when you're crafting a glossy thriller with a fair amount of cash behind it, and that informal approach was Ashby's downfall. He had been very successful in the previous decade, especially well-regarded for his way with coaxing great performances out of his actors, but come the eighties his personal demons were not only catching up with him but his drugs habit was getting him a reputation of being unreliable because of it. He continued working, but nothing like on the high profile he had before: this film was a try at clawing back some of that former reputation, proving he could guide a starry cast to a genuine success at the box office.
Obviously it didn't work out that way, and the final cut was taken away from him, then after that he was diagnosed with cancer, dying a couple of years later. Not the best decade for Ashby, but some have found worth in 8 Million Ways to Die, seeing it as containing a degree of that old magic for its way with its actors, and such eccentric scenes as having the main baddie, a rather good Andy Garcia as Angel the Cuban drug lord, dole out sno-cones to characters (passion fruit flavour - fancy) when in the middle of a tense dialogue exchange. How Scudder gets involved with him is when one of Angel's prostitutes, Sunny (Alexandra Paul), appeals to the ex-detective to help her get away from a pimp who she suspects may be violent, except she tells him it's nightclub owner Chance (Randy Brooks) who is the man in question.
Scudder wakes up to what is really happening soon enough, but not before Sunny meets an unfortunate fate, just as she feared, which shifts attention to her friend and fellow whore Sarah, played with acid testiness by Rosanna Arquette. She is sceptical she needs saving at all, but Scudder persuades her leaving the woman as a pawn in a battle of wills between him and Angel, with Chance the man who could go either way, yet is refreshingly for such a character keener to go with the law-abiding point of view. The problem for audiences at the time was that they thought they were going to watch the sort of material that made To Live and Die in L.A. memorable, that Miami Vice chic action, when what they got was a lot of oddball conversations and hardly any action at all. In fact, you had to wait until the very end before the gunfire returned in a fairly ridiculous scene with the most swearing they could pack in. Coming across more as cocaine-fuelled moviemaking, in that it was probably more interesting in concept than practice, this only intermittently deserved the talent it had. Synth music by Thomas Newman.
Cult American director who started out as an editor, notably on such works as The Loved One, In the Heat of the Night (for which he won an Oscar) and The Thomas Crown Affair. Thanks to his friendship with Norman Jewison he was able to direct his first film, The Landlord, and the seventies represented the golden years of his career with his sympathetic but slightly empty dramas striking a chord with audiences. His films from this period were Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home and Being There. But come the eighties, Ashby's eccentricities and drug dependency sabotaged his career, and he ended it directing a forgotten TV movie before his untimely death from cancer.