Dale "Mac" McKussic (Mel Gibson) is a former drug dealer trying to go straight. His close friend Nick Frescia (Kurt Russell) is a Detective Lieutenant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department who, in spite of their long-term relationship going back to high school, is duty-bound to bring Mac to justice if he is selling drugs again, as DEA Agent Hal Maguire (J. T. Walsh) believes to be the case.
Mac is attracted to stylish restaurant owner Jo Ann Vallenari (Michelle Pfeiffer). Nick becomes acquainted with Jo Ann while attempting to learn more about Mac's activities, in particular his relationship with the Mexican drug kingpin Carlos, whom the DEA agents and Mexican federal police commandante Escalante (Raul Julia) believe is coming to town. Mac has a legitimate business and is raising a son, trying to distance himself from his former drug smuggling ways. But he tries to help his lawyer (Arye Gross) sell some cocaine, and feels indebted to his old friend Carlos, who is pressuring Mac to do one last job.
Jo Ann succumbs to Nick's charms and a love affair begins. Nick genuinely cares for Jo Ann but she becomes angry when Mac accuses Jo Ann of spying on him on Nick's behalf. She accuses Nick of using her to gather information because Mac often eats at her restaurant and hires her to cater his son's birthday party. Nick admits he is investigating Mac and that he originally approached her because of that. But he truthfully admits that he really has fallen in love with her. Jo Ann ends her relationship with Nick for his initial deception. Maguire and his associates, meanwhile, set a trap for Mac and the mysterious Carlos, whose face none of them except Mac has seen.
In time, Jo Ann realizes that Mac is in love with her and that she has fallen for him. Nick figures out that Mac's cousin Gregg (Arliss Howard) is an informer for the DEA. Nick also realizes that Maguire has become dangerously obsessed with catching Mac, willing to use any means necessary. Mac and Jo Ann make love at his house. Jo Ann is called to her restaurant on business. Nick meets her there, gives her a pistol for protection, and tells her to stay away from Mac tonight because Carlos is expected there. She does not heed Nick's warning and returns to Mac's house, where she discovers that Escalante is, in fact, Carlos.
Carlos relieves her of Nick's pistol and takes her to his yacht at the marina. He knows that Gregg is the informer and has him killed, leaving his body next to a shipment of gasoline contaminated cocaine. Maguire and Nick find Gregg's body and the cocaine at the beach. Nick meets with Mac to warn him that Jo Ann is in danger. Mac pulls a gun on Nick and rushes to the marina. Carlos pressures him to kill Jo Ann because she now knows too much. Mac refuses, threatens Carlos at gunpoint and gets Jo Ann to safety on a speedboat. Mac nevertheless promises Carlos that he will be at the rendezvous site as arranged to conclude their business. Nick explains to Maguire that Escalante is actually Carlos and heads for the marina. Mac arrives first and is double-crossed by Carlos, whereupon a fight ensues between them. As they struggle over the pistol, it discharges into Carlos's abdomen, fatally.
Maguire shows up and begins shooting, first to kill Carlos with a shot to the face, and at Mac as he is raising his hands to surrender. The gunfire causes the boat's fuel tank to catch fire, just as Mac jumps in the water. Nick arrives at the marina. He hears the gunfire, draws his weapon and orders Maguire to cease fire, but Maguire continues shooting, forcing Nick to shoot him in the back, wounding him. The fire causes the boat to explode, and with it the millions of dollars of cocaine on board.
The story ends with Nick asking Jo Ann to meet him at the beach. She arrives to instead find Mac, running to embrace him in the waves. A pleased Nick watches from a distance.Mel Gibson as Dale "Mac" McKussic
Michelle Pfeiffer as Jo Ann Vallenari
Kurt Russell as Lt. Nick Frescia
Raúl Juliá as Commandante Xavier Escalante/Carlos
J. T. Walsh as DEA Agent Hal Maguire
Gabriel Damon as Cody McKussic
Ely Pouget as Barbara
Arliss Howard as Gregg Lindroff
Arye Gross as Andy Leonard
Daniel Zacapa as Arturo, Bartender at Vallenari's (credited as Garret Pearson)
Budd Boetticher as Judge Nizetitch
Ann Magnuson as Shaleen McKussic
Tequila Sunrise was filmed on location at Manhattan Beach, California, USA.
Before filming commenced, actors attached to the lead male roles included Harrison Ford, Alec Baldwin, Nick Nolte and Jeff Bridges.
The expensive menswear and slicked-back hair sported by Kurt Russell's character, Detective Lieutenant Nick Frescia, was modelled upon Pat Riley, the basketball coach that director Robert Towne initially intended for the role. Russell was quoted as saying that "Riley's look was right for this film because he was arrogantly confident but not offensive."
The famous love scene between Mel Gibson and Michelle Pfeiffer takes place in a hot tub, that was reportedly not properly constructed or chlorinated, resulting in skin rashes and splinters for the actors and their body doubles, and causing production to halt for a few days.
Director Robert Towne wanted Dale McKussic (Mel Gibson) to go up in smoke at the end of the film, but one of the conditions Warner Bros. set was that he must live. "Gibson's character was supposed to be a moth in the flame," said Towne. "The real high for him was never doing the drugs, but the danger of dealing the drugs."
Tequila Sunrise currently holds a score of 44% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 18 reviews, and a score of 62 on Metacritic, indicating mixed reviews. However, it was a commercial success, made for less than $20 million and grossing over $105 million worldwide.
Critics commented both positively and negatively upon the labyrinthine nature of the complex plot, characteristic of earlier Robert Towne screenplays such as Chinatown. Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times wrote that "Tequila Sunrise weaves a tangled web, and there are times when we are not sure what is happening, or why. There are even moments when the chronology itself seems confused, when characters seem to know things they could not be aware of, when other characters arrive at places they should not have known about." Vincent Canby in the New York Times called it "the fuzzy focus of someone who has stared too long at a light bulb. Narrative points aren't made and the wrong points are emphasized." However, Time Out wrote that the "set-up has the precision of fine needlepoint, picking out the plot outline before embroidering it with a complex pattern of interwoven relationships."
Michelle Pfeiffer was described as a "stunning presence" in the New York Times, while Time Out thought her "perfect as the immaculately dressed and icily controlled restaurateur caught between Gibson's honest (ex-)criminal and Russell's ambiguously motivated cop." Variety praised each of the lead performances—"Gibson projects control skating atop paranoia, and is appealing as a man you'd want to trust. Russell is fine as the slick cop who's confused by his own shifting values, and Pfeiffer achieves a rather touching quality with her gun-shy girl beneath the polished professional"—but concluded there was "not much kick in this cocktail, despite its mix of quality ingredients."
Conrad L. Hall was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography, and won an American Society of Cinematographers Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in Theatrical Releases.
Gabriel Damon was nominated for a Young Artist Award in the category of Best Young Actor Supporting Role in a Motion Picture.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2002: AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions – Nominated