8 Million Ways to Die (1986) Review

Film poster

It took me a few viewings to totally appreciate Hal Ashby’s barely released 1986 film 8 Million Ways To Die, which was the eclectic and troubled helmer’s unique spin on the crime film, and would serve as his final major motion picture. This was the first attempt to adapt the Matt Scudder detective character from author Lawrence Block (A Walk Among the Tombstones) for the big screen, with a gritty screenplay coming from future auteur Oliver Stone (JFK, Natural Born Killers) and R. Lance Hill (Road House, Out for Justice, The Evil that Men Do), who was credited under the pseudonym David Lee Henry, with uncredited rewrites courtesy of Robert Towne (Chinatown, Days of Thunder, Ask the Dust).

Starring a gruff and sweaty Jeff Bridges, Rosanna Lisa Arquette in one of her best and sexiest performances, and an extra-volatile Andy Garcia in one of his first leading roles and in total scene stealing mode, the movie died a very fast box office death, and was met with savage reviews from critics, arriving a year after William Friedkin’s more celebrated cop film To Live and Die in LA. But over time, it has become a bit more appreciated, most certainly by Ashby fans, but also as an example of the slick and dangerous neo-noir movie world that doesn’t very often get a chance to be seen in quite this fashion on screen. There’s a booze-soaked quality to this film that feels vivid in nearly every moment.

8 Million Ways Die

8 Million Ways To Die has a scattershot narrative involving cops, scum-bags, drug dealers, prostitutes, murders, and liquor, that’s both pulpy and energetic and certainly coherent, and yet still feels compromised in some instances (Ashby had final cut taken away from him by the producers). But there’s still something fascinating going on within the narrative and with certain aesthetic choices made by Ashby and his team. Stephen H. Burum’s sinewy and seedy cinematography stressed an alternatively shadowy and sometimes neon-inflected color palette, while the excellent music from James Newton Howard kept an appropriately shifty and dangerous sonic ambiance; the opening helicopter shot with Howard’s sleazy music blaring is 80’s-perfect.

And considering that Ashby was reportedly fired from the movie before it was finished, that might explain why the film feels so choppy in spots, as he wasn’t allowed to collaborate on the final editorial process. It’s an odd yet entertaining film, with some cool moments, but exists as a curious “What if?” on Ashby’s legendary filmography. Another interesting tidbit is the involvement of the production/distribution entity Producers Sales Organization; check out their story and credits on Wikipedia for some extra-fun reading. Someone should really think about making a documentary about these guys as their credits are really wild.

Jeff Briges and Andy Garcia

For a long time, 8 Million Ways To Die was a hard film to track down. It was never given an American DVD release, but was released by Second Sight in the UK on that format. Now, thanks to Kino Lorber, Ashby’s swan song has been given the Blu-ray treatment, and the results from a picture and audio standpoint are excellent, showcasing deep blacks and rich colors all throughout, with a very clean transfer which retains Burum and Ashby’s intended 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Howard’s spectacular musical score, especially that sax-heavy opening, sounds luscious to the ear, a further reminder of that composer’s stellar gifts with musical accompaniment. Overall, this is a very spiffy looking and sounding film when viewed on Blu-ray.

Special features include interviews with Garcia, Arquette, Block, Alexandra Paul, a trailer gallery, and an informative and entertaining audio commentary with Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson. This film certainly had a helluva production, with various rewrites occurring much to the annoyance of key creatives and Ashby battling it out with producers over his unconventional filmmaking approach, and despite all of this, I really think it’s a lot of fun, and if it’s not everything it might’ve been under less hellish circumstances, it serves as a unique final offering from Ashby, who rarely repeated himself and was clearly interested in exploring various genres during his amazing career.

Review by Nick Clement

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