8 Million Ways to Die Review

At first glance, 8 Million Ways to Die, a profane, hard action movie involving drugs and prostitution that's based on a pair of books by author Lawrence Block, seems like an unlikely candidate to have been directed by Hal Ashby. In a remarkable string of films in the seventies, masterpiece-level one and all, Ashby chronicled characters whose activities were far less important than their individual features and emotions and personal struggles. As has been well-documented, particularly in Nick Dawson's book Being Hal Ashby, the director's run ended almost like a clock striking midnight when the decade came to an end. Being There was a major success in 1979 but it was seemingly a constant struggle once the Reagan years began. The near-disaster that greeted 8 Million Ways to Die at every turn helped to make it Ashby's last studio and theatrical feature before the great, humanistic filmmaker died much too soon at the age of 59 in 1988. (He managed another two, rather unlikely credits outside of the cinema with the pilot for a comedic Hill Street Blues spin-off and a sci-fi television movie starring Graham Chapman and Peter Cook.)

It follows that Ashby was drawn to 8 Million Ways to Die for its protagonist's struggles with alcoholism and involvement with Alcoholics Anonymous rather than the grittier, more violent elements found in the script, which was co-written by Oliver Stone like he was reaching again for Scarface glory. Once Ashby got the directing gig (after the original choice Walter Hill, who was to be paired with Nick Nolte, turned it down) he apparently brought in Robert Towne, with whom he'd earlier collaborated on Shampoo and The Last Detail, to transform and mold it as necessary. The result, while still unpolished at times on the screen and certainly imperfect, opens up main character Matt Scudder's demons and desires far more than the average hack-directed genre picture of this sort. Instead of just alluding to what Scudder is facing internally, his struggles inform almost every action he makes. One of the biggest potential flaws in the film is a question of motivation, of why Scudder would even bother to get involved, but it's a question answered by almost painful, even bordering on cheesy at times, exposition.

As Scudder, Jeff Bridges really guides the picture through a performance that's at once both indicative of how natural of a film actor he can be and also a reminder of his limitations, meaning an inability or unwillingness to venture too far beyond that comfort zone. The character is a bundle of weaknesses with quite a lot to prove, particularly to himself. The film begins with an overhead shot of California traffic that deserves to be better known and a conversation in voiceover between Scudder and his partner lamenting the growing murder rate. Ashby and Towne repositioned the setting from New York City to Los Angeles, and the opening voiceover becomes something of an acknowledgement of that transition. A semi-botched incident takes Scudder off of the police force and ultimately lands him in AA, where he's accepting a badge for being six months sober the next time we see him. The same AA meeting has a mysterious coda that kicks off the drive of the narrative, wherein a woman gives Scudder a note leading him to a private party and another woman who acts as if she knows him, though he has no recollection at all of her.

This overly outgoing woman, a prostitute named Sunny (played by future Baywatch lifeguard Alexandra Paul), serves as the catalyst for Scudder's involvement in what becomes a murder mystery entwined with a drug smuggling ring. Lives, cocaine, and a quarter of a million dollars are all at stake. Scudder happens to recognize Chance (Randy Brooks), the man hosting the party, as a former bust from his police days. Also at the gathering are Sarah (Rosanna Arquette), another prostitute, and Cuban drug boss Angel Maldonado (Andy Garcia, who's in rare form playing flamboyant, dangerous and crazy). The larger plot ties all of these pieces together for a decent enough storyline, though one that either lacks suspense or general concern to the viewer. Like much of the film, the narrative suffers an awkwardness that might be attributable to the editing, which didn't involve Ashby because he had been dismissed from the project after filming. Lowered expectations help, and given the film's middling reputation that shouldn't be too difficult. The score by James Newton Howard acts as an unfortunate distraction.

In terms of what really works with 8 Million Ways to Die, there's Bridges' solid accessibility to what could easily be a difficult character and there's also the insistence by Ashby and, presumably, Towne to make Scudder a guy with deep emotional wounds hounded by his dependence on alcohol. The emotions he feels from the shooting seen at the beginning of the film haunt him all the way to what happens with Sunny, and seemingly explain his determination in going after Maldonado. When romance blossoms with Arquette's Sarah, it does feel somewhat forced but it also allows for Scudder to gain a redemption of sorts. His narrative is not novel but some of his actions are nonetheless rather unexpected and color the viewer's opinion of him. Weird tangents which do little to serve the plot also make a nice impression. Garcia's entire performance is a good example of a consistently odd break in the film's rhythm that nonetheless works in its context. The occasional humor therein must be intentional, particularly in an instance like the snowcone maker he keeps in the trunk of his car. Perhaps not every awkward touch in 8 Million Ways to Die can be explained or defended, but enough of them can so as to resist any sort of outright dismissal of a film that definitely has its charms.


The Disc

UK label Second Sight has brought 8 Million Ways to Die to R2 PAL DVD. My single-layered check disc had an odd quirk in the opening credits where the film's title is in German (click to see screen capture) and then subtitled with the English equivalent. Since there's a DVD release of the movie available in Germany perhaps Second Sight used that master for its own version, complete with that single instance of Deutsch.

The progressive transfer looks decent, easily acceptable at the low price point. It's in approximately the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, enhanced for widescreen televisions, and slightly windowboxed. Some dirt is clearly visible as the film begins but, aside from a stray hair creeping into the upper middle part of the frame on one occasion, the remainder of the picture is pretty clean and free from damage. Grain can be spotted throughout, as can some unwanted digital noise. Colors appear true. For a film of its age and relative obscurity, 8 Million Ways to Die looks reasonably good on this DVD.

Audio is nothing to fuss over but the two-channel English stereo track does fine in the presentation of dialogue and that annoying/charming eighties score. It comes through clearly, without any problems or inconsistencies in the mix. A subtitles track is included but it only contains the English translation of the film's title, as explained above, and does not otherwise offer any aid to the hearing impaired.

There are no extras included with this release.


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