Scudder is a detective with the Sheriff's Department who is forced to shoot a violent suspect during a narcotics raid. The ensuing psychological aftermath of this shooting worsens his drinking problem and this alcoholism causes him to lose his job, as well as his marriage. During his recovery through Alcoholics Anonymous, he meets a mysterious stranger who draws him back into a world of vice. In trying to help this beautiful woman, he must enter a crime-world of prostitution and drugs to solve a murder, while resisting the temptation to return to his alcohol abuse.
Sometimes what happens off camera is more interesting than what makes it up onto the screen, and that certainly seems to be the case with 8 Million Ways to Die, the final movie from acclaimed director Hal Ashby, who got the film taken out of his hands by the studio – who had someone else edit the movie, thus taking away the vision Ashby had for it. So this is very much one of those "what could have been" titles, as the cast here is solid and there are interesting scenes sprinkled throughout, but the sum of the parts doesn't quite equal a whole.
Jeff Bridges stars as L.A. cop Matt Scudder, a character created by crime novelist Lawrence Block with a screenplay (co-written by Oliver Stone) based upon a Block novel of the same name (although Block's character is based in New York City). Scudder has a drinking problem which takes a nose dive into self-loathing after he has to kill a drug dealer in front of the dealer's wife and kids. The events ruin his marriage, and the film only provides the slightest glimpse at Scudder's home life before picking up some time later after he's gotten divorced.
Now an ex-cop, Scudder makes ends meet by taking jobs the cops won't deal with, and finds himself working for a prostitute named Sunny (Alexandra Paul) who is trying to get out of the business. Not long after taking the case, Sunny is abducted and murdered – leading Scudder to want to both bring the people responsible to justice and get a bit of revenge. His investigation leads him into a friendship with another prostitute, Sarah (Rosanna Arquette), as well as the man responsible for Sunny's death – drug kingpin Angel Moldonado (Andy Garcia, in one of his earliest movie roles).
The film kind of meanders from this point forward, turning basically into another 1980s cop thriller, with not a whole lot new to say. Bridges and Garcia are both doing their best here...Bridges being the more experienced of the two actors, while Garcia is still a little rough around the edges (going over-the-top more than a few times). Watching the two actors together, however, is really the highlight of 8 Million Ways to Die - I mean, in what other movie does the hero go face to face with the villain while both are enjoying Sno-Cones? (According to Garcia in the bonus materials, the scene I speak of was also almost entirely improvised by the two actors, as Hal Ashby had essentially scrapped the movie's script – making it even more impressive to watch their work in the movie).
Although the final cut of the film was taken away from Hal Ashby, it's perhaps unfair to malign the studio (the now-defunct Producers Sales Organization) for what happened. At this point in his career, Ashby was notorious for some bizarre antics on and off set, and had caused some issues with some of his prior releases. Still, it might be interesting to have seen his version. As it stands now, 8 Million Ways to Die is a curiosity, but not really a good movie. Go into it with the film's history in mind, and you'll get some entertainment value out of it.
A Final Note: If the name "Matt Scudder" sounds familiar, it's because Liam Neeson reprised the character in 2015's A Walk Among the Tombstones. It's fun to compare that character with the one Bridges plays here.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
8 Million Ways to Die arrives on Blu-ray in a standard Elite keepcase from Kino Lorber. The 50GB disc is packaged alongside a single insert: a 22-page full color booklet that simply features box covers (four to a page) of other "Studio Classics" releases from Kino Lorber. The slick of the keepcase is reversible, with alternate front cover artwork on the flip side (the back side of the slick remains identical). There are no front-loaded trailers on the Blu-ray, whose main menu consists of a still shot of the upper half of the box cover (the part featuring Jeff Bridges and Rosanna Arquette). Menu selections run horizontally along the bottom left of the screen.
The Blu-ray is Region A locked.
8 Million Ways to Die was shot on 35mm film and is presented here in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio, despite the (incorrect) back box cover claim that the movie is in its original 1.85:1 theatrical ratio. As transfers of older movies go, this is a rather average one from Kino Lorber (I believe the studio just has to use the transfer provided to them by the studio – in this case, 20th Century Fox).
There's a lot of dirt and debris on the print over the opening credits, but things settle down after that, although I did notice problems at some points of the movie, including a vertical piece of dirt stuck at the top of the image for a few moments during one early scene. Colors are nicely reproduced here, and there's still grain noticeable in the image – it's unobtrusive for the most part, but it does manage to allow the presentation to maintain a film-like look to it. Details are pretty decent throughout, although some scenes look flatter than others. Black levels are okay – nothing spectacular, but good enough that the darker scenes never get too murky. Noise isn't too much of a problem, either.
Overall, this is a pleasant viewing experience and more or less on-par with some other 80s flicks I own on the Kino Lorber label.
The only audio option (other than the commentary track) on this release is an English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track. The audio here is solid, if unspectacular, and provides a reasonably clear presentation.
The best thing I can say about the audio is that it allows listeners/viewers to really enjoy composer James Newton Howard's score – which is in the tradition of other 80s cops movies (i.e., that ol' electronic sound combined with orchestral music). Dialogue is clear, but not exactly crisp – although no one should have issues discerning what is being said. Like most police dramas of its day, there's some gunplay here along with at least one significant explosion. Again, the track handles these decently, but it's far from dynamic. The track is mixed properly though, so the spoken word never gets drown out, nor is it disproportionate to ambient sounds.
Subtitles are available in English SDH.
Audio Commentary by Film Historians Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson – Mondo Digital's Berger and Destructible Man's Thompson give a well-informed commentary covering the history of the movie and its director, the book the film is based upon, the actors, the script, and all kinds of interesting tidbits. If you have any interest in this movie at all, this is a must-listen, despite the two commentators having nothing personally to do with the movie itself.
Interview with Star Rosanna Arquette (HD 5:34) – The female lead of the movie talks about her experience on the movie, primarily discussing Director Hal Ashby and how the film was taken away from him by the studio (he didn't get to edit the final cut).
Interview with Star Andy Garcia (HD 19:08) – In what proves to be the best bonus on this release, Garcia talks in length about the movie, including how he got cast in the part, working with Ashby, and even getting called in for an audition for another part even though he'd already been cast as the main villain. (Note: There is an embarrassing mistake here by the creators of this interview piece where they show a photo of Hal Ashby on the set of a film with Jack Nicholson. The photo is from the movie The Last Detail, which Ashby directed, but they misidentify it as Five Easy Pieces, which Ashby had nothing to do with.
Interview with Star Alexandria Paul (HD 4:44) – The actress talks about her experience on the movie, particularly the audition process she went through to get the part.
Interview with Writer Lawrence Block (HD 13:53) – The creator of the Matt Scudder character talks about his books and bringing the character to the screen, as well as the changes that were made to the story along the way and his impression of Hal Ashby.
Trailers – A collection of six trailers, all available from Kino Lorber (although Thunderbolt & Lightfoot is only on DVD, since Twilight Time has the Blu-ray distribution rights), and all of which must be watched individually (there is no "Play All" option). They consist of: Blown Away (SD 1:35), Trouble Man (SD 2:30), Thunderbolt & Lightfoot (SD 2:00), Truck Turner (HD 5:13), Taking of Pelham One Two Three (HD 2:32), and Prime Cut (SD 2:34).
8 Million Ways to Die is one of those films where the behind-the-scenes stuff is probably more interesting than what made it into the final cut of the film. As a police drama, it's pretty average and sort of run-of-the-mill compared to its 1980s counterparts. However, the movie does contain another solid performance by Jeff Bridges, who is almost always interesting to watch, and it's also notable for being the last movie from Director Hal Ashby. At the very least, this one's Worth a Look.