Believe it or not but Savages was not the first time that Oliver Stone had a hand in ruining a crime novel that I love.
In all fairness you can't lay it all on Stone this time out. 8 Million Ways To Die has to rank as one of the most inexplicable combinations between a director and source material ever devised. It’s a crime film made by Hal Ashby that we’re talking about here. Ashby was of course best know for his humanistic character driven dramidies and whimsical fables. Bruising slabs of mean streets cinema not so much.
Because it’s not just any crime film either, it’s a Lawerence Block adaptation. If there’s one thing Block isn’t it’s whimsical. He’s not particularly humanistic either. Block has written some of the most cynical, down right meanest crime novels ever and The Matthew Scudder series contains some of the darkest of those. Following this rabbit hole even further we find that 8 Million Ways To Die is considered one of the darkest of that sub strata. This is a natural fit right? And yes, Oliver Stone (in the prime of his white powder days) wrote the screenplay, because let’s face it it’s not like it makes things any weirder.
Things get off on the wrong foot literally from the first shot, a sweeping seemingly never ending panoramic helicopter shot of a city. It would be a perfectly fine shot, except it’s of the wrong city. Matthew Scudder is the quintessential New York detective, his character is informed by and associated with the city to roughly the same extent that Phillip Marlowe is with Los Angeles and Patrick Kenzie is with Boston. It’s not simply nonsensical to move him to the opposite coast. It’s antithetical. All making the completely arbitrary decision (it’s not as if effects the plot in any way) to change the location does is make the viewer suspicious that those involved didn’t really give half a crap about making a decent adaptation, it is a suspicion that is confirmed many many times over the course of the film.
The movie follows Matthew Scudder, an alcoholic former LAPD detective, who quits the force after killing a person (though the fact that that person was changed from a little girl to a drug dealer beating Scudder’s friend with a baseball bat makes the downward spiral that follows it more or less nonsensical) and sets himself up as an Unlicensed PI.
8 Million Ways To Die really kicks off (for lack of a better term) when a Scudder is hired by a woman at one of his AA meetings, a prostitute leaving the life who hires Scudder as protection from her pimp. The woman is murdered, Scudder goes on a black out drunk and then a week later comes to and tries to figure out what happened.
As a plot gimmick goes a man having to backtrack and piece together what he uncovered during a missing week isn’t bad, but 8 Million Ways To Die soon drops the conceit. The best detective stories combine morality plays with puzzle box plots, the search for truth that the detective goes on is reflected by the peeling back of the various facades of the world around him. The solution to whatever mystery is present should neatly coincide with the revelation of the world the detective inhabits for what it really is. 8 Million Ways To Die on the other hand has all the finesse of a lurching drunk. The film was compromised, taken out of Ashby’s hands in the editing room, but the director’s personal problems were catching up on him and attempts to insert the director’s trademark whimsy (a hostage exchange negotiated over a snow cone, exposition delivered during a lurching walk down a city street that plays very close to physical comedy) and the beloved behavioralism of his seventies films just come off as sloppy.
There are a few bright spots, Jeff Bridges plays Scudder with a very undude like conviction, and with the right level of bruised morality that suggests that he could have been the right actor to bring the character to life had he been provided with a better script. And a young Andy Garcia makes for an impressive charismatic villain, even if Stone seemingly wrote the character as a dry run for Tony Montana. But it’s not enough to save the movie. 8 Million Ways To Die is the worst kind of bad film, the kind that doesn’t make you mad so much as it just kind of depresses you. Everyone in the film has done better work, alas Hal Ashby would never be given the chance again, the film served as a muddled coda to a great career.
When the movie flopped it drove the character of Scudder right off the screen, for the next thirty years. Luckily it looks like he’ll be given a second chance, Scott Frank and Liam Neeson are bringing the character back for A Walk Among The Tombstones, perhaps the darkest and best book in the series.
Here’s hoping they have better luck.