8 Million Ways to Die (1986)
Written by Oliver Stone, Robert Towne, and R. Lance Hill
Directed by Hal Ashby
It’s pretty clear by this point that Hal Ashby’s career as a successful filmmaker was over. His glory had been in the 1970s, and now the 1980s were eating him alive. 8 Million Ways to Die is nothing like the way an old Ashby film felt. There’s no thoughtful contemplation or a focus on character. This is noir storytelling full of all the tropes and cliches you might expect. The treatment of women is disappointing when you look at more liberating pictures like Coming Home or Harold and Maude. This is the final journey of Hal Ashby, one into mediocrity.
Matt Scudder (Jeff Bridges) is an LA cop who takes part in a drug bust that goes bad and has him shooting a man in front of his wife and kids. The fallout, Matt, becomes an alcoholic and loses his badge. Months later, he finds himself drying out and part of Alcoholics Anonymous. After one meeting, he’s invited by a stranger to a private gambling club where he meets Sunny (Alexandra Paul), a call girl who appears desperate to get Scudder’s help. Matt eventually becomes embroiled in the violent cocaine business of Angel Moldonado (Andy Garcia).
Compared to the other late work of Hal Ashby, this wasn’t too terrible a movie. It’s still super mediocre and not worth your time watching. It’s nowhere near as horrible as The Slugger’s Wife, the movie I still argue is Ashby’s worst. When you look at the people behind this movie, it seems like it could have been a return to form for the director. The screenwriters include past and future Oscar winners, and Jeff Bridges is the lead. Neo-noir was definitely prevalent in the 1980s but also a bit overblown, there are few films in the genre that actually hold up past the kitsch of the decade.
Matt Scudder seems like an interesting character, and he is more developed than most 1980s Ashby protagonists. I think playing up the PTSD of him shooting a man is a great angle, it turns the casual murders of 1980s crime films into something that has weight. Scudder hits rock bottom, and the audience can empathize with him. When the mystery plot kicks in, we lose that element of humanity, and it traffics in all the plot elements you would expect.
Because we had so many cooks in the screenwriting kitchen and Hal Ashby was working in a system that no longer wanted his point of view, we end up with a profoundly uneven film that has perspective. Ashby encouraged improvisation in crucial scenes, most notably in a scene in the third act showdown, which plays strangely. The ultimate conclusion is a rather upbeat ending for a 1980s crime thriller. Scudder finds peace and continues his journey as an addict, acknowledging he has to take one day at a time.
In 1987, Ashby directed one of four versions of a pilot for Beverly Hill Buntz. The series was a comedy spin-off of Hill Street Blues, focused on Dennis Franz’s Norman Buntz. The character has moved to Los Angeles to work as a private detective. It’s a rare occurrence of a drama spinning off into a comedy. The show is a cringey mess and once again doesn’t seem to know how to rise above annoying cliches. Ashby would go on to direct the pilot for a Graham Chapman vehicle titled Jake’s Journey. And that was it. His filmmaking career was over. Ashby was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1988, and by December of that year, he was dead. He was only fifty-nine years old.
This film series has been incredibly illuminating. I’d always heard about Ashby’s decline in the 1980s but never seen it for myself. This has to be one of the most tragic directorial careers I’ve ever seen. Those old movies are profound and beautiful. I had only seen Shampoo once before, but rewatching, it opened my eyes. It’s an incredibly relevant picture of upper-middle-class ennui that still feels important today. Being There is just a masterpiece of American moviemaking. I have to think that Ashby’s sensibilities did not mesh with what movies became in the 1980s. I believe Ashby was also a victim of his own success, clustering himself away and not having the same outside input when doing his work. I still recommend his 1970s movie strongly; they are seminal works of American art.