Difficult to say what plums the public’s fascination these days, but a movie about bartending isn’t something that immediately comes to mind; that is unless the film is Roger Donaldson’s Cocktail (1988) and its star is Tom Cruise. Only Cruise, it seems, is capable of taking the most mundane or even implausible subject matter (and Cocktail is a little of both) and selling it as a warm and fuzzy ‘feel good’ that inebriates the heart as it anesthetises the mind. Cocktail is not high art. I’m not even certain its competent film making. What it was, is and arguably will always remain is frothy fizz without the cola; a straight up and no chaser romp through the improbably glamorous world of two intellectually stunted boys who never want to – and arguably never will – grow up.
Heywood Gould’s screenplay pours out the punch with a rather sparkling zest for the obtuse and the absurd, cleverly marketing both as an exposé on the high life turned sour after happy hour. We open large on the dead end life of Brian Flanagan (Tom Cruise), who’s left the army to move to New York and become a part-time bartender at T.G.I. Friday’s while studying for his business degree. The job doesn’t pay much, but oh what it yields in that ever-revolving line of smouldering hot women who come in for only one thing. And Brian knows exactly what that ‘one thing’ is because it’s the same thing he wants. One problem; Brian’s a lousy bartender. I mean, he doesn’t even know the ingredients that go into some of the drinks.
No worries, though, since Brian’s boss/mentor is Doug Coughlin (Bryan Brown) – a wily flirt with a playful spirit who is a deadly serious when it comes to pouring his drinks. Brian’s tutelage begins with ‘Coughlin’s Law’ – an unabashedly crass set of golden rules imparted by the master to his pupil and designed to maximize tips and other gratuities that will surely land both men in hot water. What Doug sees in Brian is a rather blank slate of opportunities, someone he can mould to his way of thinking. Moreover, Doug has big plans to open his own bar – Cocktails and Dreams – but not necessarily with Brian as his business partner. After all, ‘the kid’ is still very wet behind the ears, and not in vermouth.
Exhibit A: after the boys migrate their bartending act uptown to a trendy nightclub, Brian becomes involved with Coral (Gina Gershon); a sinfully smouldering brunette who takes our budding pro through some sexual exploits that leave Brian invigorated, but very much leading with the wrong head. He thinks he’s in love. Doug bets Brian that he can easily snag Coral for the weekend, essentially forcing Brian to admit that there is absolutely nothing special about their relationship. What Doug doesn’t tell his upstart is that he has already plied Coral with personal info Brian shared about her with him. As revenge, Coral sleeps with Doug, incurring Brian’s wrath. The two have a brawl at work and Doug and Brian’s partnership ends.
On the advice of a former flame, Brian takes a bartending gig in Jamaica to raise money for his own place. He has decided that the best revenge is to have a nightclub of his own – one he is certain will be infinitely more successful than any Doug could possibly create for himself. Brian is lured into a romance with wealthy vacationer, Jordan Mooney (Elisabeth Shue), whose aspirations include becoming a successful artist in New York City. The two are inseparable. But then Doug arrives with his new wife, Kerry (Kelly Lynch) a voracious sex kitten who openly flirts with other men and has a penchant for wearing skimpy bikinis. Kerry is exceptionally wealthy and able to fulfill Doug’s financial dreams for the future.
But Doug is still up to his old tricks when he bets Brian on who will be the first to bed Bonnie (Lisa Banes), a notorious cougar. Despite having fallen in love with Jordan, Brian accepts the wager, seduces Bonnie and takes her to his room. Jordon stumbles onto this seduction without being seen. Heartbroken, she flies home to New York. Brian, who has somehow transferred his romantic feeling towards Jordon into a competition with Bonnie to upstage Doug, also returns to New York with his latest conquest where he makes a woeful dumb ass of himself while attending an artist’s exhibition.
After their breakup, Brian is determined to seek out Jordan whom he learns is pregnant with his child and living under her father’s roof in a Park Ave. penthouse. However, the prospect of having a bartender for a son-in-law utterly sickens Jordan’s father, Richard (Laurence Luckinbill) who attempts to buy Brian off. Yet here, a gracious whim of fate intervenes. Having finally grown a pair, Brian decides that money isn’t everything. Unconvinced of his true feelings Jordan remains distant and guarded.
So Doug and Brian reunite at a flashy affair where Doug confides that he has badly mismanaged his wife’s considerable fortunes. Having lost almost everything on the commodities market, Doug gets wasted, becoming obnoxious and sullen. Kerry asks Brian to take her home. He does and she tries to lure him into bed. But Brian will not betray Doug even as he was earlier betrayed by him. Instead, he leaves Kerry hot and bothered and panting at the front door. Too late, Brian finds his old friend with self-inflicted wounds to each wrist. He has committed suicide with a broken bottle aboard his yacht. After his funeral, Kerry gives Brian a letter written by Doug. In it, Doug confesses that his entire life has been one gloriously wretched catastrophe.
This realization realigns Brian’s perspectives on his own life. He goes to Richard’s apartment and begs Jordan to take him back. After a brief scuffle with Richard, Brian escorts Jordan to his Uncle Pat (Ron Dean) and establishes a concrete plan to get his life back in order. With the money he has managed to save up, Brian opens ‘Flanagan’s Cocktails & Dreams’, a popular watering hole, with a very pregnant Jordan at his side, exposing her unborn child to some very heavy cigarette smoke from the patrons. She reveals to Brian that they are about to have twins and Brian responds by offering drinks on the house, much to Pat’s chagrin.
There’s just no polite way of getting around it. Cocktail is preposterous nonsense! That said; it is also slickly packaged, smartly produced and deftly handled melodrama that holds our attention from one inanely implausible moment to the next. It’s always a little baffling – and more than a little unsettling – to see a film with so little premise (and even less good taste) do so well at the box office. But there it is.
Tom Cruise gets by on his megawatt smile and some inherent arrogance that bodes well with his character. Brian Flanagan is really a bastard. I mean, he sells himself short, plays the part of the fool with grating frequency and even allows himself to be manipulated into almost ruining the one relationship in his life (with Jordan) that is not a fraud. What a girl like Jordan could ever see in a guy like Brian is frankly beyond me. But I suspect what women everywhere saw on screen was not the character as written by Gould or even as performed by Cruise, but Cruise himself; his manicured pretty boy and unapologetic bravado searing a white hot streak across the big screen.
Today, we tend to forget what a box office draw Tom Cruise was in his prime – able to ring cash registers around the world with one flash of that trademark toothy grin. Cocktail is only one film removed from Cruise’s megaton smash, Top Gun, and that wave of popularity from that movie had yet to crest by the time Cocktail hit theaters in the summer of 1988. Yet, in retrospect, it becomes increasingly difficult to appreciate Cruise in this role as anything but grandstanding from the vantage of Top Gun’s success. It’s as though Cruise is thumbing his nose at everyone – especially his fans – while saying, “Yeah. I can do anything I want and you’ll love me for it.” And curiously enough we did, and still do. If anything, Cocktail proves that as far as audiences were concerned Tom Cruise could do no wrong.
Brian Brown’s Doug is an even bigger jerk than Cruise’s Brian, and yet the actor manages to infuse some genuine sympathy for this little lost boy caught playing manhood with a peashooter bigger than his brain or even his need for self-preservation. At first, like Brian, we are attracted to Doug’s blind ambition, his devil-may-care approach to life and his general disdain for love that leads to many a night happily spent fulfilling various male fantasies with various permissive partners around town. It may be a dog’s life but it’s the man who’s living it, and to the hilt and without reprisals and/or regrets. That Doug eventually gets more than he bargained for is just his plain dumb luck, or perhaps kismet. But we still feel as though he doesn’t deserve to have his wrists Ginsued even if his trophy wife doesn’t care much one way or the other.
Elizabeth Shue’s Jordan is perhaps the most grating character; her faithful as a bird dog and can’t be devious nice girl is brought to heel by her strangely repellent love/hate insecurities harboured after Brian proves he cannot be trusted. She’s like a very rich tourist, perpetually on holiday from the more unflattering aspects of daily life that the rest of us have to face without the benefit of a gold card or uppity WASP daddy to run home to when the chips are down. I get the genuine sense Shue’s agent thought this was a particularly smart move for her. It’s not. The actress has a lot more to offer, as she proved in Adventures in Babysitting, and would again prove in films like Leaving Las Vegas and Palmetto.
Roger Donaldson gets a lot of mileage out of the movie montage; interrupting his…uh…story…with very flashy bits of badinage set to chart-topping pop tunes that economically illustrate Brian’s digression from aspiring college student to disreputable lady’s man. There’s really not much more to say about Cocktail other than it lacks just about every viable ingredient necessary to be considered a good movie – yet strangely, it manages to work itself into our system like a bad shot of Tequila we can neither puke out or piss away. Does the film have merit? I’m sure that it does. After all, I’ve written this rather lengthy review, so I must have found something in it to fill this space. Is it a good movie? Hmmm.
The good news is that Cocktail looks smashing on Blu-ray. The 1080p image positively glows. Accurate flesh tones, sold grain, excellent contrast levels, colours that absolutely pop – what can I tell you? The image quality on this disc hits all the highs expected from the Blu-ray format and it’s about time Touchstone began releasing its pop hits from the 80s and 90s in hi-def. More of the same please, and keep ‘em coming! The audio? Fantastic too. Okay, this isn’t The Green Lantern so don’t expect an explosive audio. The acoustics do recapture the vintage 80s feel good with hits like Georgia Satellite’s Hippy Hippy Shake and The Beach Boy’s Kokomo rocking the house. One drawback – no extras. Oh well – can’t have everything. Bottom line: recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)