“SUNSET” (1988) Review

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“SUNSET” (1988) Review

Bruce Willis and James Garner co-starred in this period piece murder mystery about famous Western movie star Tom Mix and former Old West lawman Wyatt Earp solving a case in 1929 Hollywood. Written and directed by Blake Edwards (“PINK PANTHER” and “VICTOR/VICTORIA”), the movie was based upon Rod Amateau’s novel of the same title.

The movie begins with studio boss Alfie Alperin (Malcolm McDowell) assigning Tom Mix to star in a movie about Wyatt Earp and the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. He even hires Earp to act as the film’s technical adviser. The two legends become good friends before getting caught up in a real case that involved prostitution, corruption and the murder of a Hollywood madam. And Alperin’s step-son Michael (Dermot Mulroney) becomes the police’s main suspect. Alperin’s wife and Michael’s mother Christina (Patricia Hodge) recruits Earp (an old flame) and Mix to help her son by finding the real killer.

Let me be frank. “SUNSET” is at best, a mediocre film. It is filled with cinematic clichés, plot twists that either do not make any sense or come off as predictable, and some rather bad dialogue. Surprisingly, one of the worst offenders turns out to be Bruce Willis. I am not accusing him of bad acting. On the contrary, I believe that he gave a pretty damn good performance. Unfortunately, Willis was forced to deal with some pretty atrocious dialogue, thanks to writer/director Blake Edwards. Honestly . . . the poor man came off sounding like a California surfer circa 1985, instead of a Hollywood cowboy from the 1920s. Perhaps if Edwards had refrained from including the term “dude” into Mix’s dialogue, Willis could have emerged from the movie unscathed.

However, Willis was not the only cast member who suffered in this movie. The director’s daughter, Jennifer Edwards, did not fare any better as Victoria Alperin, Alfie’s sister. Poor Ms. Edwards. A year later, she would give a wonderful performance as a ditzy secretary in the 1989 remake of the 1950s television classic, “PETER GUNN”. But in “SUNSET”, her Victoria Alperin seemed even more out of place in this 1920s tale than Willis’ Tom Mix. Her performance struck me as petulant and unnecessarily brittle. I could not help but think she would have fared better in a guest appearance on “MIAMI VICE” as the brittle wife of some drug dealer or corrupt businessman. Honestly. Actor Joe Dallesandro portrayed Dutch Kieffer, a take on the famous gangster, Dutch Schultz. Granted, he did a competent job in adding menace to the character. Unfortunately . . . his demeanor seemed more suited to a character in something like “BARETTA” or “STARSKY AND HUTCH”. Like Ms. Edwards, he seemed even more out of place in this movie than Willis. But the one person who truly seemed out of place in “SUNSET” was character actor M. Emmet Walsh. Poor Mr. Walsh. He had the bad luck to portray the chief security officer of Alperin Studios, Marvin Dibner. If there was one character who seemed unnecessary to the story, it was him. Honestly, his character could have easily been deleted. Instead of creating another addition to his gallery of interesting supporting roles, poor Mr. Walsh popped up in every other scene, wearing a dumb expression.

Fortunately, “SUNSET” could boast some good, solid performances. Despite some of the bad dialogue dumped on him, Bruce Willis had the good luck to be teamed with James Garner. Between Garner’s earthy performance as the legendary lawman and Willis’ cocky take on the famous Western star, the pair managed to create an electrifying screen team. Kathleen Quinlan made a nice addition to the cast as the sly and humorous Nancy Shoemaker, one of Alperin Studios’ publicists. Mariel Hemingway had been nominated for a Razzie Award as Worst Supporting Actress for her role as the daughter of the murdered madam. This nomination merely confirmed my belief that the Razzie Awards are full of shit. I thought Hemingway gave a good, solid performance and had a nice chemistry with Garner. Richard Bradford, fresh from his role in 1987’s “THE UNTOUCHABLES”, gave a convincingly venomous portrayal of a corrupt cop named “Dirty” Bernie Blackworth . . . despite some questionable dialogue. Patricia Hodge and Dermot Mulroney portrayed Christina Alperin and her son, Michael. They gave competent performances, but I found nothing memorable about them. And of course, there was Malcolm McDowell portraying Alfie Alperin, the movie comedian-turned-studio head. It is obvious that Alperin is based upon Hollywood icon Charlie Chaplin. I can only wonder if Chaplin was as cruel and sadistic as the Alperin character. Thankfully, McDowell did not use the character’s negative traits as an excuse for an over-the-top performance. His Alfie Alperin came off as warm, clever, charming and most importantly, quietly menacing.

Plot wise, “SUNSET” turned out to be another one of those murder mysteries set in Old Hollywood. And yes, it was filled with the usual clichés and name droppings. I would reveal the killer’s identity, but I suspect that anyone with a brain would guess within forty minutes into the story. Or make a close guess. The only difference from this Hollywood mystery and others was that the two investigators turned out to be famous figures and not some Los Angeles detective or minor studio employee. Speaking of Earp and Mix, many film critics pointed out that the two had never met in real life. As it turned out, they did meet and Mix had served as a pallbearer at Earp’s funeral. Talk about an egg in the face. However . . . Earp did pass away two months before the movie’s setting. And Mix was at least seventeen years older than Willis’ true age during the movie’s production.

If there is one aspect about “SUNSET” that I must commend, it is the film’s artistic designs. Patricia Norris beautifully re-captured the 1920s in her Academy Award nominated costumes. Hell, I could say the same about Richard Haman’s art direction, Marvin March’s set decorations and especially Rodger Maus’ production designs. Thanks to these four artisans,“SUNSET” fairly reeked of the slightly corrupt gloss of late 1920s Hollywood.

“SUNSET” is such a mediocre film that there are times I wonder why I like it. Some of the characters seemed out of place in the 1929 setting. M. Emmet Walsh was practically wasted in his role as a studio security chief. The movie was filled with some atrocious dialogue. And to be honest, the plot came off as so predictable that it almost seemed easy to pinpoint the killer’s identity. So why did I bother to watch this movie? Why did I bother to purchase a used VHS copy of the movie, several years ago? Despite its obvious flaws, I rather like “SUNSET”. Willis and Garner literally lit up the screen as a charismatic duo, McDowell made a fantastic villain and the movie did feature some witty dialogue. But most importantly,”SUNSET” was drenched in a late 1920s setting thanks to such work from artisans like Rodger Maus’ production designs and Patricia Norris’ costumes.

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