Based on the novel of the same name by Laurence Block which was turned into a screenplay by Oliver Stone (which was in turn extensively re-written by R. Lance Hill infamously earning the film Stone's wrath!), Hal Ashby's 1986 adaptation of 8 Million Ways To Die should have been a pretty great movie. It didn't turn out that way. Ashby complained of interference on the part of producer Mark Damon, who later hired Robert Towne to further work on the script while during the shoot seemingly half of the cast members improvised as they went along. Making matters worse, once photography wrapped, Ashby was canned and the studio took over, and maybe not so surprisingly the film was a massive flop when it eventually got to theaters. However, it does stand as the first big screen appearance of Matt Scudder, a character that would later be played by Liam Neeson when Block's A Walk Among The Tombstones was made in 2014 by director Scott Frank.
The story revolves around aforementioned L.A. detective Matthew Scudder (Jeff Bridges). Early in the film he winds up in trouble with the higher ups due to his tendency to drink like a fish. The fact that he shot a suspect doesn't help his case much either. He joins a rehab program and while at one of their meetings he is invited to a party where he meets a beautiful woman named Sunny (Alexandra Paul). While at the party he also runs into a drug addict named Chance (Randy Brooks), with whom Scudder has an unpleasant past. As Scudders starts evaluating the scene, he realizes that Chance is actually a pimp and that Sunny is clearly not only in his employ, but also forced to live with him alongside a few other prostitutes. She asks for Matt's help getting away from him but before Matt can really help her with that, she winds up dead.
Scudder has a pretty serious relapse after this happens but once he sobers up enough, he decides to do something about Sunny's death. As he does what he can to figure out who killed her, he falls for a former hooker named Sarah (Rosanna Arquette). The deeper he gets in this case, the more he starts to realize that Sunny's problems had more to do with a gangster/drug kingpin named Angel Maldonado (Andy Garcia) than with Chance, giving our troubled hero a shot at not only personal redemption, but at winning his old job back as well.
Too many cooks in the kitchen? Sure seems that way, but despite its many and obvious flaws, 8 Million Ways To Die is at least entertaining enough to be worth watching once. It's also an interesting curiosity item for those with an affinity for film history given its rocky production which is quite well documented on the supplements accompanying the feature on this Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber's Studio Classics line (but more on that in a few paragraphs). The movie's biggest problem is that Scudder never really seems like the type to do what he does in the movie. He tosses away his family, a wife and daughter played by Lisa Sloan and Christa Denton, without so much as a thought but then feels so strongly for a dead prostitute he's never met before that he turns into some sort of disheveled angel of vengeance. And then there's his drinking. It really only seems to be a problem when the story calls for it. The movie doesn't portray his struggles with alcoholism so much as an actual struggle as it does a convenient plot device able to be whipped out anytime Scudder's character needs a setback. There are also some moments where the script rather sloppily tosses realism out the window. An example? Angel's tendency to basically hold a warehouse full of cocaine without really bothering to secure it the way he should or even really try to keep it much of a secret. Not enough? Before it's all over the cops get involved and seemingly have no trouble at all cooperating with Chance and Scudder (a pimp and a drunk). Stuff like this just doesn't seem plausible.
But hey, this is a work of fiction and if you're somewhat undiscerning when it comes to your neo-noir/Michael Mann inspired crime films, 8 Million Ways To Die is enjoyable enough on its own merits. On the plus side we have an interesting cast. Sure, Bridges has been a lot better in a lot more movies, but he's still got that everyman sort of style that works well for characters like this. Andy Garcia and Randy Brooks mostly just chew scenery but at least they're fun to watch, while Alexandra Paul and Rosanna Arquette are decent enough in their roles (and quite fetching as well). There is, for better or worse, a certain sense of unpredictability to the whole thing that keeps it engaging and to be fair it is really nicely shot as well. Ashby's direction is uneven but how much of that is really his fault is pretty debatable given that it was taken out of his hands before it was cut.The Blu-ray:
Kino presents 8 Million Ways To Die on Blu-ray in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed at 1.78.1 widescreen on a 50GB disc. The image quality here isn't going to floor you but it definitely provides a satisfactory HD viewing experience. Detail, depth and texture do stop short of reference quality but handily surpass what standard definition would be able to provide. Any print damage that shows up is minor, just small white specks here and there and some inconsequential instances of dirt. Colors look good, black levels are solid and skin tones look fine. There doesn't appear to be any obvious noise reduction or edge enhancement near, nor are there any compression artifacts of note.Sound:
Audio chores are handled well by the disc's DTS-HD 2.0 track. Dialogue stays clean, clear and easily discernable from start to finish and the score has decent ‘oomph' behind it at times. Sound effects are a tiny bit flat in a few spots but otherwise, there are no problems to note. Optional English subtitles are provided.Extras:
Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson kick off the disc's surprisingly robust selection of supplemental features with an interesting commentary track. This is good stuff. These guys have done a lot of research and it shows in their dissection of the film and its genuinely convoluted production history. They detail the issues that Ashby had with the producers, the different rewrites that occurred and pretty much spell out all the trouble that happened to make this the movie that it is. At the same time they're also able to see the good in the film when it's there, making interesting observations about the performances, locations and cinematography.
A nice selection of interviews are also included, starting with a short but sweet six minute long piece with leading lady Rosanna Arquette. She speaks about getting along really well with most of her co-stars, some of the difficulties in being cast as a prostitute, her relationship with Hal Ashby and some of the problems that the film ran into after shooting wrapped. Andy Garcia's nineteen minute interview is a bit more substantial as he starts off by talking about auditioning for the part (and then obviously getting it), his thoughts on the script and what could be done to improve it, working alongside Ashby on the picture, becoming fast friends with co-star Jeff Bridges and then the legalities that wound up sinking the picture in the long run. Alexandra Paul is up next for an eleven minute stint in which she recalls her audition, her thoughts on the character she was cast to play, difficulties with the script and the shoot and some of the more unorthodox research methods she employed to familiarize herself with cocaine use. The fourth and final interview sees writer Laurence Block talk for fourteen minutes about how he got into writing, his efforts to turn Matt Scudder into a series character, a potential collaboration with Oliver Stone that didn't pan out and his thoughts on Ashby's work on the picture. It isn't pretty.
Menus and chapter selection rounds out the extras (sadly there's no theatrical trailer included here).Final Thoughts:
8 Million Ways To Die is a very flawed film but not a picture without some merit. Despite the obvious missteps and questionable scripting choices, the picture does manage to entertain. It's got a good cast, it's quite stylish and it contains some decent action and exploitation elements. Kino's Blu-ray is an unlikely special edition release, loaded with some pretty great extras and offering up the movie in a good presentation too. This won't be for all tastes but overall, it comes recommended if only because the story behind the picture is so interesting.