This was a column I wrote for EInsiders.com first published Jan 31, 2002.
Regular readers know that Sam Peckinpah was one of my favorite directors. His deft action sequences combined with complex characters and a love for the mythological American West resulted in some of the most memorable American movies ever made. If any living director has come close to capturing the essence of a Peckinpah film, it is Walter Hill. This is not to say that Hill is a cinematic plagiarist? Not at all. Hill is no more a Peckinpah plagiarist than Brian De Palma is a Hitchcock clone.
Hill's earliest movies are my favorites. Those films also have the closest resemblance to Peckinpah's work. This may not be a coincidence as Hill wrote the script for Peckinpah's biggest commercial success, "The Getaway" (1972). I saw the movie "Southern Comfort" for the first time since its theatrical in 1981 release last week. I was amazed how well the movie still played and how much more I got out of it this time around. That seed planted, I decided to share my love of Walter Hill's work as a director and writer in yet another "Video Risk" boxed set. Excuse my testosterone for the next little while, but Walter Hill isn't for wimps.
Hill as Assistant Director and Screenwriter
Prior to directing his first feature, "Hard Times" (1975), Walter Hill was an assistant director or screenwriter on some of the best guy-movies of the era. His second unit and assistant director gigs were on three very diverse films which were to impact his later career. On "The Thomas Crown Affair," Hill worked with director Norman Jewison. The film's influence was to show up in Hill's later work. "The Thomas Crown Affair" was a star driven vehicle (Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway), but it also featured split screen photography, and more importantly, complex intelligent characters. The anti-hero was a millionaire thief who epitomized 'cool'.
Mr. Hill worked on yet another Steve McQueen movie in 1968. He was an uncredited second unit director on the influential "Bullitt." The third film he worked on as an assistant director was Woody Allan's heist comedy "Take the Money and Run." Hill was to later combine comedy and crime himself in the megahit "48hrs."
Hill has five screenwriting credits which predate his directorial debut. The first was the 1972 Sam Peckinpah hit, "The Getaway."The Getaway" was the first Peckinpah movie I saw on the big screen. It was his biggest commercial success, and it was proof that Sam could take an ordinary action film and make it something more through rich characters. It wasn't a controversial movie, it was just great audience pleasing fun. Like Preston Sturgees said so humorously in "Sullivan's Travels" sometimes the audience just wants to be entertained. They get hit over the head by "messages" everyday in real life. How about a little escapism. Sam gave it to audiences in 1972 as Carter "Doc" McCoy (Steve McQueen) and his wife Carol (Ali MacGraw) shot their way across the Southwest in search of a place they could call their own. Amidst this rousing action tale, Sam delivered his best essay on the relationship between men and women. The theory that a woman's woman will stand by a man's man also played out in real life on the set as Ali MacGraw left pretty boy producer Robert Evans for the motocross daredevil, Indy car driving, brooding Steve McQueen.
Doc is released early from a Texas penitentiary by Jack Beynon (Ben Johnson), a powerful banker, in order to pull off the robbery of a mob bank. Doc’s release was negotiated by his wife. The couple is teamed up with the psychotic Rudy Butler (Al Lettieri) and his simpleton sidekick Frank Jackson (Bo Hopkins). The robbery goes off fine until Frank kills a guard. A chase between the cops and robbers ensues with Doc and Carol in one car, Rudy and Frank in another. During the chase Rudy kills Frank (Bo Hopkins would have to wait until "The Killer Elite" to survive the opening robbery of a Peckinpah film). At the rendezvous between Doc, Carol and Rudy, Rudy attempts to kill Doc. Doc shoots him first. Doc and Carol leave to meet with Jack Beynon and split the money. Doc leaves Carol in the car and goes inside the corrupt banker's home. As the two men talk, Carol walks up behind her husband raises her gun to his head. At the last second she turns the gun on Jack and kills him instead. The rest of the film has Doc and Carol on the run from the banker's brother and his henchmen, their ex-psycho partner who was only wounded by Doc, and half the police in Texas. All the while they are trying to settle their marital troubles. Loads of fun.
Two common themes in Sam's movies are loyalty and survival. Doc and Carol must stick together to survive the forces arrayed against them. They are forced to do this even though their has been a betrayal on the part of Carol. In the sequel it was made very clear that Carol (Kim Bassinger) had sex with Jack (James Woods), and she was tempted to double cross her husband for the security that the flashy gangster could provide. In the original, the sexual betrayal is not as clear. As Doc slaps her on the side of a deserted Texas highway, Carol cries and tells Doc that anything she did was for him, that she never intended to kill Doc. Of course the tears that streamed down her face as she raised the gun to the back of Doc's head tell a different story. She loved him, but she seriously considered trading up to a more luxurious model. Love overcame greed and Carol shot the banker instead. Proving that a woman's woman will stick by a man's man. It takes Doc a while to wipe the images of unfaithfulness from his mind, but a real man can forgive choices made out of love. Unlike David and Amy in "Straw Dogs," the McCoys are made for each other. Carol can drive a getaway car or shot a pump shotgun to beat the band. She endures every hardship and challenge that Doc does and runs the same risks. They make such a nice couple!
There are several standout supporting performances. Notably Jack Dotson from Mayberry as Harold Clinton, a cuckolded Veterinarian who’s’ bimbo wife Fran (Sally Struthers, the only weak link) is seduced by the psychotic Rudy. Al Lettieri as Rudy brings his trademark menace to the film. With the exception of his performance as Virgil Solotso in "The Godfather" this is his finest work. Slim Pickens makes a great little cameo appearance at the end.
The second Walter Hill film to come out in 1972 was the hip, violent crime caper "Hickey and Boggs." Designed to cash in on the popularity of the racially groundbreaking TV series, "I Spy," "Hickey and Boggs" re-teamed actors Robert Culp and Bill Cosby as private eyes who are looking for a missing girl. The movie posters featured a smiling Culp and Cosby in front of a car holding very large post-Dirty Harry pistols. Far from being a comedy, the Robert Culp directed film is an extremely violent and brutal film. While not a big commercial success, "Hickey and Boggs" is a good little crime caper. The non-comedic performances by Culp and Cosby actually work to the films advantage. Hill's script sets up just about everyone in the movie for a violent death. As far as I know, "Hickey and Boggs" isn't available on DVD or VHS right now. It has been a few years since I saw it on cable. It is worth catching if you have the opportunity. As I haven't seen it in a few years, I'll not go into a detailed review. I know our faithful readers would e-mail me with goofs as soon as I mispoke about the movie. (I do appreciate such e-mail! It keeps me on my toes.) Don't let the PG rating fool you, "Hickey and Boggs" is still brutal. The film was rated PG in 1972 as was "The Getaway." The 1972 PG rating allowed for much more sex and violence than today's PG rating. The movie is also helped immensely by a great supporting cast which includes Rosiland Cash (The Omega Man), Michael Moriarity, James Woods and Vincent Gardenia.
Hill's third script was the forgettable "The Thief Who Came to Dinner" starring Ryan O'Neal. Directed by Norman Lear's partner Bud Yorkin, "The Thief Who Came to Dinner" has already received more space in this review than it deserved. His fourth screenplay "The Mackintosh Man" should have been better than it was. Directed by John Huston and starring Paul Newman, "The Mackintosh Man" is a spy movie that is best compared to Hitchcock's "Torn Curtain." I compare it to "Torn Curtain" because it is a mediocre work of a master director. There are a couple of memorable scenes, but the overall effect is blah! Hill had one more screenplay to be directed by another person before he started taking over his own reigns. Along with "Hickey and Boggs," "The Drowning Pool" was the best adaptation of a Hill screenplay by another director from Hill's early career.
"The Drowning Pool" (1975) is a sequel to the Paul Newman private eye movie "Harper." Hill co-wrote the script with Tracy Keenan Wynne and Lorenzo Semple. Lew Harper (Paul Newman) is called down to the Bayou's of Louisiana to help Iris Devereaux (Joanne Woodward), an old lover accused of murder. The plot revolves around a rich twisted family, adultery, incest, a deserted mental hospital, environmentalists and oil tycoons. More style than substance, the great cast is still fun to watch. In addition to Newman and Woodward the cast includes Tony Franciosa, a hot nymphet Melanie Griffith, a slimy Murry Hamilton (the mayor in Jaws) and the always solid Richard Jaeckel. The film's highlight is the scene which explains the movie's title. Hill would return to the Bayou 16 years later in a film which would rival "Deliverance" for building mistrust of backwoods folk.
Walter Hill the Director (1970s)
1975 also saw the release of Hill's first feature as a director. "Hard Times" starred James Coburn and Charles Bronson in a depression era tale of a bare knuckle boxer and his manager. Chaney (Charles Bronson) is just one of thousands of Americans out of work because of the Great Depression. Chaney makes his living as a street fighter. Traveling town to town by riding the rails, Chaney takes part in bare knuckle fights staged in railroad yards, factories or saw mills. Speed (James Coburn) is a grifter who makes a buck anyway he can. He makes quite a bit taking bets on these illegal fights. When Chaney destroys a fighter Speed bet on, Speed approaches Chaney about becoming his partner. The independent Chaney wants nothing to do with Speed. Of course they end up working together.
The episodic film tells the evolution of their relationship. Strother Martin appears as Poe, a rival gangster. The movie also stars Bronson's late wife Jill Ireland. There is little gunplay for a Walter Hill movie, but the film is brutal. The fist fights are long, sweaty, bloody and realistic. The film's richness comes from the screen chemistry between Bronson and Coburn. Charles Bronson has rarely if ever given a bad performance. He has been in a ton of bad movies, but he has always put 150% into his performances. "Hard Times" is one of his best. He is a man of silent virtue, driven to make a living as a fighter because of the chaos that rules the country. Like many a good man, he is driven to violence in order to survive. Coburn has always had a bit of the devil in his eyes. Even when playing a straight role, he brings a bit of the imp into the part. His Speed gives him a chance to shine. He is smarter than most around him. He also has no moral foundation so feels no compunction in separating folks from their money, or gambling away his partner's share of their money. Hill's scripted moral conflict between these two characters gives "Hard Times" its heart. Hill's flare for action provides the spine. "Hard Times" proved to Hollywood that Walter Hill was a double threat. He could write and he could direct. He would later add producing to his resume, but that comes later.
Hill's next movie showed a depth of talent not hinted at before. "The Driver" almost defied classification. It think of it as a hybrid of film noir, classical mythology and the cinematic stylistics of Dario Argento. Prior to writing and directing his second film, The Driver (1978), Walter Hill had contributed as writer, assistant director or second unit director on Bullitt and the original versions of The Getaway and The Thomas Crown Affair. While the influences of those films are apparent in The Driver, this lean, mean crime drama is no derivative rip-off. Hill's taut character study stands along side those earlier films as a Zen crime classic.
What story there is surrounds the attempts of a corrupt cop (Bruce Dern) obsessed with catching the "cowboy who's never been caught." That cowboy is The Driver (Ryan O'Neal). The characters in this movie have no names. They are The Driver, The Detective, The Connection, and so forth. These symbolic names are clues to the viewer that what at first appears to be a fast-paced action film is really a Zen study of people evolving into the best person they can be. It makes no difference that these characters are amoral people, they all strive to be the best "badguy (or gal)" they can be. It is this existential undercurrent which sets The Driver apart from countless 1970s crime dramas.
My favorite film of all time is Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in the West." I am also a fan of Kurasawa's classic samurai movies, especially "Yojimbo." Ryan O'Neal's "Driver" compares favorably with the lone samurai warriors in those films. I don't care what you say, Charles Bronson's "Harmonica" in "Once Upon a Time in the West" was a samurai badass if there ever was one. Instead of a sword, Bronson's character wielded a six shooter, while in "The Driver," O'Neal has become one with his car. He is the best freelance getaway driver in the L.A. underworld. No one compares to him. There is a stand out scene in which a group of armed robbers who wish to employee O'Neal ask him if he is worth the high fee he charges. O'Neal proceeds to take the three badguys on a demolition test drive in the cramped confines of a parking garage, which is harrowing for the passengers and audience alike. His services are much sought after in the underworld. His legend is also what drives the obsessive Detective (Dern) to try and catch him. The cat and mouse game of taunts and teases between these two characters is very reminiscent of the taunting carried on to a perfect climax between Bronson's "Harmonica" and the ultimate badguy "Frank" (Henry Fonda!) in "Once Upon a Time in the West."
Ryan O'Neal has never been better. He has very little dialogue; according to IMDB he only speaks 340 words in the entire movie. O'Neal only talks when he has something to say. His character is the only one who has completely evolved into being the best. All others are wanna be's who admire and fear O'Neal. Those characters who are the least evolved usually underestimate O'Neal, and end up paying for it. This is a Darwinian crime film. The strong eat the weak. One refreshing aspect of O'Neal's silence is that there are no humorous throwaway lines ALA Arnold Schwarzenegger or Bruce Willis. If O'Neal kills someone, it is because there is no other way out. He doesn't relish violence. In fact he abhors any wasted effort or action. When he acts, he expends only the amount of energy necessary to get the job done. The Driver never stands over the body of a fallen enemy and gloats.
To some, this movie is nothing more than an exciting car-chase film. On this level, The Driver is as exciting as they come. Hill's direction of the car chases rival anything of this type ever put on film. The chases also have a Zen like quality. Hill shows O'Neal's thought processes as he flees from hoards of police. Rather than concentrate on exterior shots of speeding cars, Hill intercuts with interior car shots which show O'Neal calculating which route to take, acting on his observations, and out driving those in pursuit. The interior shots are very technical as, for example Hill shows just what it takes to perform a 180 degree E Brake turn. One shot really stands out during the film's opening nighttime chase through L.A.. O'Neal has just driven two cop cars into the dirt. He pulls back onto the abandoned streets and begins to drive the speed limit. The engine's silence is eerie after the roar of metal which preceded it. The silence is only a brief respite as, soon enough, more cops appear in the rear-view window.
Following the first chase, O'Neal is shown disposing of the car by dropping it with a crane into a junk yard. The scene interested me for two reasons. O'Neal's oneness with the machine he is throwing away is apparent by the meticulous and almost loving way plays the scene. It as if he has more in common with the automobile than with human beings. He has almost become a machine himself. The two robbers who had hired O'Neal watch as he disposes of the battered car. There are undercurrents in this scene which continue throughout the rest of the movie. The viewer gets the feeling that these two badguys might try to kill O'Neal and cut him out of the take. There is something about the way O'Neal carries himself in this scene which prevents these robbers from underestimating him. Maybe they have evolved enough to realize that if they go up against O'Neal, they will not survive.
Do not think that because O'Neal doesn't speak much, that his performance is flat. The contrary is true. He does more with facial expressions and body language than most actors do with thousands of lines of dialogue. He would have been great in the silent film era. With one exception the rest of the cast is also excellent. I got the impression that the more a character spoke, the lower they were on the evolutionary ladder. This is especially true of Bruce Dern's Detective. Dern talks and talks. He believes that he is O'Neal's equal. He tries to convince all around him that he is the king of the hill. He is very intimidating, but while he can talk the talk, the viewer wonders if he can walk the walk. Dern's Detective is another of his memorable creepy characters. Another standout scene occurs when Dern, unable to covertly manipulate O'Neal into a trap, confronts O'Neal personally in The Driver's Spartan room. Watch the fleeting expression which flashes across Dern's face when O'Neal finally responds to the detective's prodding bravado. That split second is very revealing.
The one fault I find with the movie is Isabelle Adjani's performance as The Player. This was Adjani's first American movie. I don't know whether the fault for her flat, lifeless performance should lay at her feet or at the feet of writer/director Hill. Whoever's fault it is, her performance comes as close to being a fatal flaw as can be without actually killing the movie. I assume from the way the character is written, that the Player is as nearly evolved as O'Neal's character is. Unfortunately, Adjani seemed unaware of the film's suntext; as a result her character has one facial expression for every occasion.
Fortunately for the viewer there are numerous rich supporting performances which provide texture and depth to this classic. Especially fine is the sorely missed Ronee Blakely as The Connection. Ms. Blakely was the heart and soul of Robert Altman's Nashville. Her performance here is quite small, but is painful proof that Hollywood overlooked and underused her talents. She is as talented and beautiful in this movie as Julianne Moore. I can't imagine what film today would be like if Ms. Moore were as overlooked as Ms. Blakely was. Another standout in the supporting cast is Rudy Ramos as Teeth. Rudy is one of the three armed robbers who attempt to lure O'Neal into a trap for Dern. He has the unfortunate task of having to try to persuade O'Neal to say yes after he has already turned them down. Their scenes together are some of the best in the movie.
The Driver should have appealed to a wider audience. The action crowd will not be disappointed, and those who prefer an interesting intellectual subtext to their movies will also be pleased. I have been a fan of Hill's since I saw his first film, Hardtimes, back in high school. The Driver is among his best work. If this review makes it sound to highbrow, ignore that and rent it for the thrills, either way you will not be disappointed.
1979 was a banner year for Walter Hill. It was also a year of controversy. The public discussions about real violence vs. Reel violence was brought to a head following the release of his third feature film as a director. Hill also stepped into the limelight as a producer in 1979. He co-wrote with Dan O'Bannon and produced a little science fiction film called "Alien." The high tech version of an old monster-loose-on-the-spaceship movie spawned….well, everyone knows what came of "Alien." Hill would provide the script or story for two of the sequels while producing all four films in the series. It was Hill's other film from 1979 which made his name a household word during the summer of 79. That movie was:
What would happen if every teenage gang in New York were to sign a peace treaty whereby they would agree to band together and take over the five boroughs of New York? That intriguing premise sets up the opening of "The Warriors." Cyrus (Roger Hill) a messianic gang lord makes just such a proposal in a city wide meeting of all the gangs of New York. It was an intriguing premise which would have made an apocalyptically wonderful movie had Hill chosen to follow it to the implementation of Cyrus's plan. However, the movie took a different route. Cyrus is assassinated by Luther (David Patrick Kelly, in a career making role). Luther is seen shooting Cyrus by Fox, a member of a Coney Island gang called The Warriors led by Swan (Michael Beck). Luther begins to yell out that "The Warriors shot Cyrus!" With Cyrus's murder, the truce is called off. Each gang must get back to their turf. The Warriors must fight their way back to Coney Island. Every gang in New York wants to kill the Warriors for the murder of Cyrus. What follows is a comic book come to life. While I'll always wonder what would have happened if Hill took a different route with "The Warriors," I'm still thrilled every time I see this modern classic.
Hill sets a comic book tone with the costume design of the various gangs. One gang wears Yankee baseball uniforms and paint their faces blue. There is a roller disco gang, a neo-nazi gang and so forth. The film contains so many great set pieces that it is hard to know where to start.
The most brutal fight comes when the Warriors run across the roller disco gang in a subway restroom. Heads crash into urinals with such force that the viewer wonders how no one was hurt in the production of the movie. The battle in central park against the baseball bat toting 'Furies' is another highlight. There is a girl gang called the 'Lizzies' who's seduction of the Warriors is not unlike the sirens who claimed Ulysses men.
Hill is a director who works with a regular group of actors. David Patrick Kelly and James Remar would both appear in several Hill movies. The cast also included Mercedes Ruehl in an early role. Ms. Ruehl has a great scene with James Remar on a park bench in central park. Michael Beck is stoic as the gang's leader. Singer Dorsey Wright (Hair) is also very good as one of the besieged gang. It is Kelly who stands out in his small slimy role. No one who has seen the movie can forget his hellish whiny voice as he clicks three beer bottles together and shouts "Warriors…come out to play-ay!" over and over again.
The Peckinpah connection would be the way Hill's characters stick together despite their many differences. The Warriors include a Wasp, an African American, a Hispanic and several Italian members. The leader's girlfriend is a Puerto Rican. Such diversity in a gang is almost unheard of in the real world. While there are inter rivalries within the gang, they stick together when threatened from the outside. It is reminiscent of the scene from "The Wild Bunch" when Tector and Lyle (Ben Johnson and Warren Oates) seem on the verge of trying to take over the gang. This "honor among thieves" theme is recurrent in both the works of Peckinpah and Hill.
It was reported that fights broke out in L.A. and New York theaters when the movie opened. The publicity was good for the box-office. Of course the knee-jerk, liberal, inner-child-promoting, boneheads called for the movie to be banned. It wasn't. Long live the first amendment!
Hill's career would reach its critical apex the next year with the story of America's greatest outlaw gang.
THE LONG RIDERS
Hill's western classic "The Long Riders" was promoted with the gimmick casting of four sets of brothers portraying the real life brothers in the movie. The gimmick worked extremely well as the acting brothers were all very talented people. Stacy and James Keech play Frank and Jessie James. David, Keith and Robert Carradine portray the James brother's cousins Cole, Jim and Bob Younger. Randy and Dennis Quaid play Clell and Ed Miller. As the cowards who slew Jessie James, Christopher and Nicholas Guest play Charlie and Bob Ford.
"The Long Riders" picks up the career of the James gang at it's peak. The episodic storyline covers the train and bank robberies while showing the outlaw's personal lives. What comes across is a portrait of the political climate in post-Civil War Missouri which basically allowed a gang of murderous thieves to be heralded as heroes. The film shows how the Missouri folks who harbored the James gang saw their actions as a continuation of the Civil War. This is a minor point in the film, but it shows the depth of Hill's script. The James gang are also aided by the horrendous tactics of the Pinkerton agency which hounded them. The agents kill the youngest member of the Younger brothers and he wasn't even an outlaw. This goof is compounded when the Pinkertons then blow up the James home killing their little brother and blowing their mother's arm off. It is easy to root for the James boys.
The film follows their exploits through their ill-fated raid on Northfield Minnesota to Jesse's death and Frank's surrender. I give nothing away be revealing the end as this is all readily found in the history books. While there is some dramatic license, the movie is very true to historical fact.
"The Long" Riders" is by far Hill's best work to date. The combination of a great script, excellent cast at the top of their form and Hill's incredible action sequences make "The Long Riders" a must see. The final raid on Northfield takes up a good portion of the movie. This is the first film I recall having the "slow-motion bullet sound effects." Hill's homage to the opening sequence of Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch" comes close to surpassing the sequence it honors! As the James and Youngers race wildly up and down the streets amid withering gunfire from the townspeople, the outlaws are hit repeatedly by bullets in a slow motion nightmare. Horrifying and beautiful at the same time, the climatic scene is all the more amazing by the fact that the Younger brothers were in real life shot to ribbons during the raid and survived. (Jay Robert Nash's book "Bloodletters and Badmen" gives an excellent account of the James gang, among other criminals!)
Ry Cooder also deserves a large credit for the film's success. Cooder's original score combined with the authentic period songs evokes the feel of time gone by.
The acting is excellent across the board. David Caradine steals the show though. His Cole Younger is a fearless, loyal and intelligent bandit. With so much star power in a movie it is quite an accomplishment when the viewer only sees the character. All of the actors achieve this, but David Caradine becomes Cole Younger. Stacy Keech, likewise is excellent as the level headed Frank James. James Keech brings the right crazed quality to the off-kilter Jesse James. Dennis Quaid turns in a rare non-heroic performance as Ed Miller, a hot-headed, trigger-happy bad guy who gets bitch slapped out of the gang following the films opening robbery. Hill regular James Remar has a small role as Sam Starr, the Indian husband of Cole Younger's prostitute lover, Belle Starr. The under-rated and under used Pamela Reed is outstanding as Belle. Cole loves her, but can't commit to marry a prostitute. Belle loves Cole but won't let a man tell her how to live her life. She wants Cole to commit to her, but he must accept her as she is. If Cole would, she would gladly give up the life. Their relationship is the most interesting of all the "family stories" which provide the backbeat to the main plot.
The photography has a gritty, authentic looks which adds an even deeper layer to this masterpiece. There is none of the sharp, glossy images found in "Young Guns" or "Tombstone." Instead, Hill and DP Ric Waite Evoke not only period, but climate and emotion through the photographed images. If you only see one movie in this boxed set, "The Long Riders" is the one not to miss.
"Southern Comfort" is one of Walter Hill's most complex films in that it works on several levels. It is a survival film ALA "Deliverance." It can also be seen as a simple B-movie action film. A closer examination of "Southern Comfort" reveals it to be one of the most accurate portrayals of the frustration felt by U.S. soldiers in the Vietnam War. The Louisiana National Guard is on summer maneuvers in the swamplands. The nine man platoon figures to complete their three day mission and then kick back with some hookers waiting for them at the end of the line. As the old saying goes, "the best laid plans of mice and men…."
Hardin (Powers Booth) is a transfer to the Louisiana guard from Texas. The film opens as Hardin 's observes the men he will be spending the next three days with. Poole (Peter Coyote) is the platoon leader. He is a by the book soldier, as is Casper (Les Lannom) his second in command. There is Coach Bowden (Alan Autry), a gung-ho religious maniac. Reece (Fred Ward) is a greasy red-neck you would expect to see get arrested for dragging a Black man behind his truck down a road in Texas. Spencer (Keith Carradine) is the city boy who procured the above mentioned prostitutes. Spencer is the smartest man in the group, but he has a sarcastic contempt for the Guard as illustrated by his first contact with Hardin. Spencer tells Hardin, "We shoot college students and tear gas (blacks)." "Oh please Mr. Guard's man, no more canisters please," interjects Simms (Franklyn Seales, The Onion Field) is his best Stephen Fetchit tone. "The Louisiana Guard has a long and noble military tradition," ends Spencer's sarcastic tirade. Cribbs (T.K. Carter), a young pot head and Simms are the platoon's two African Americans. The joke with their redneck companions because they are outnumbered. Finally there is Stuckey (Lewis Smith) the platoon's one Hispanic member. Stuckey is friends with the evil Reece. Stuckey is also the soldier who's rash action marks the platoon for death.
Poole leads his men to their appointed rendezvous point. Unfortunately, the river changed course and the men find themselves stranded. They can make a day's hike back to the starting point and start over, or they can "borrow" three canoes they came across at the camp of some Cajun poachers. They take the canoes. Halfway across the river, the Cajuns return. Before the soldiers can turn around to return the canoes, Stuckey opens fire with his .50 caliber machine gun. The Cajuns dive for cover. One thing, the soldier's only have blanks in their weapons. The Cajuns don't think the joke was that funny and they return fire. Poole losses the top of his head. Coach panics and upsets all three canoes in the process. Wet, scarred, angry and leaderless, the platoon washes up on the far side of the river.
The remainder of the movie follows the soldiers as they try to find their way out of the swamp alive. The enemy is always out there. One by one, the men will die. Hardin and Spencer bond and struggle to take control of the group away from the good hearted but ultimately clueless Corporal Casper. There is an appearance by the late Brion James as a trapper who's home is blown up by the soldiers and who is then taken prisoner. It saddens me that Mr. James died last year.
Like our men in Vietnam, the soldiers of "Southern Comfort" find themselves in a foreign jungle, following a clueless commander with no support from home. The soldier's motto seems to be "Get me out of here!" One of Hill's best directorial decisions is to not show the Cajuns who stalk the soldiers through the swamp except in fleeting glimpses. Like "Charlie," the Cajuns are in their element, striking with impunity. With the exception of Oliver Stone's "Platoon," I believe "Southern Comfort" captures the Vietnam soldier's experience better than any movie which deals with the subject directly.
The acting is very good. Powers Booth never really attained the stardom I thought he deserved. His Hardin is the moral center of the movie. Booth always appear to have something going on beneath his surface. You believe this Texas good old boy really is a smart and decent man who can be counted on. Keith Carradine appears in yet another Walter Hill movie. I've never seen a bad performance by Mr. Carradine. Them usually likable Fred Ward here is like a walking abscessed tooth. His Reece is a stereotypical Southern redneck. Les Lannom as Corporal Casper reminded me of many folks I knew in the Air Force. He is a straight laced good-natured career man who would get every one killed if he were to lead others into combat. You don't, hell, you can't hate him, but you sure fear his incompetence. Look quick for Hill regular Sonny Landham as one of the homicidal Cajuns.
There are the obvious comparisons to "Deliverance." Weekenders in the woods with riled local yokels after them. "Southern Comfort" isn't as good a film as "Deliverance" but it really is a different kind of movie. I only mention the similarities because many critics have called "Southern Comfort" a "Deliverance" rip-off. I think they missed the point of the movie. Like Hill's "The Driver," "Southern Comfort" is a high octane action movie which also appeals to the intellect.
THE EARLY 80'S
After "Southern Comfort," Walter Hill hit the big time. His next film was the perfect synthesis of the gritty crime drama and comedy. "48hrs" became a mega hit for Hill. The Eddie Murphy/Nick Nolte vehicle had audiences rolling in the aisles. No need to review it here as everyone including the Dali Lama has probably seen it. Just a few trivia notes. James Remar, who delivered fine supporting roles in "The Warriors" and "The Long Riders" came into his own as the main bad guy. His psycho performance who guarantee him work for the next 20 years. Daniel Patrick Kelly, also from "The Warriors" appeared as the doomed Luther, one of Remar's gang. The beautiful and talented Annette O'Toole is waste as Nolte's long suffering girl-friend. Hill's stylish violence and flair for character driven direction reached it's commercial zenith with this picture. His next picture would be more personal and much less successful.
STREETS OF FIRE
A Rock and Roll comic book, "Streets of Fire" stars the eternally hot Diane Lane, a tom boyish Amy Madigan, Rick Moranis and 80s flash-in-the-pan heart throb Michael Pare. Forget the plot. Forget the stylish sets. Forget Michael Pare's tough guy performance. Forget Rick Moranis's nebbish presence. Pay some attention to Amy Madigan's excellent performance. Hell, forget Hill's writing and direction! The only reason I mention this movie is the presence of the ultimate Earth-Mother cum Sex-Goddess Diane Lane. I even thought she was sexy in "My Dog Skip." The opening concert sequence when she struts her stuff in a leather mini skirt would raise the dead. She's a hell of an actress too! I wouldn't care if she couldn't act her way out of a soggy paper sack. I must stop now, as I am losing my critical perspective. How unprofessional of me. The fan must emerge every now and then!
Hill followed this commercial and critical misfire with another commercial movie which I hated and will not comment on further except to name it: "Brewster's Millions." Once again, Hill would return to a more personal vision in "Crossroads." Like Peckinpah did with "The Ballad of Cable Hogue" and "Junior Bonner" Hill showed that a macho director can have a sentimental side. Walter Hill followed "Crossroads" with an homage to his violent predecessor. The closest thing to the style and spirit of Peckinpah: "Extreme Prejudice."
"Extreme Prejudice" is almost as if a cinematic Dr. Frankenstein looted the graveyard of Sam Peckinpah's entire output, put it in a blender and came up with this highly entertaining, if derivative homage to the "Master of Violence." Actually Hill had some help with this one. If Peckinpah was the movie God of Carnage and Machismo, Walter Hill and John Milius were his imps in waiting. Co-scripted by Milius (Dirty Harry, Red Dawn, Dillinger) and directed by Hill, "Extreme Prejudice" is a movie which is at once familiar and at the same time original. I am going to (once again) break my no-spoiler review policy in order to discuss fully Hill and Milius's tribute to the late great master, Sam Peckinpah.
"Extreme Prejudice" opens with a complex credit sequence which bombards the viewer with a ton of information. Set in a Texas airport, six men are seen meeting each other. As each character arrives, a quick cut to a computer printer running shows that each of these men are soldiers who have died in either combat or military accidents. The sequence harkens back to the credit sequence of "The Getaway" in tone and the airport sequence in "The Killer Elite" in pacing and purpose. The soldiers are led by Major Paul Hackett (Michael Ironside). Clancey Brown (Highlander) and William Forsythe stand out among the five NCOs under Hackett's command. The purpose of this elite squad of covert ops is revealed as the movie unreels.
Following the credit sequence, the movie shifts locations to a dusty Texas border town. It is a rainy night. Texas Ranger Jack Benteen (Nick Nolte) and county Sheriff Hank Pearson (Rip Torn) sit outside a roadside bar. A drug smuggler has outrun the boarder patrol. The two tall-in-the-saddle lawmen are about to walk into the jaws of death to get their man. Jack wades through the crowd until he faces the dirt-farmer turned mule who makes ends meet by running cocaine across the boarder for the film's villain. Jack is forced to shoot the smuggler. Hank backs him up as the two arrest two others. The scene is full of intensely macho dialogue as the Ranger and the smuggler feel each other out prior to the shootout. Benteen is shown to fearless but human. He knows that if it comes down to a shooting he will win due to the drawn pistol under his pancho. He also doesn't want to kill this man he knew from childhood. He sympathizes with the smuggler to the extent that the economy of the region drove him to this action. Benteen's hate for the drug lord Cash Bailey (Powers Booth) is established in this great action sequence.
Jack arrives home the next morning. His girlfriend Sarita (the sexy and under used Maria Conchita Alonso) is asleep. She awakens. Jack finally reveals that he killed a man the night before. The conversation turns to the direction their relationship is going. The scene is reminiscent of Hill's earlier "48hrs." Fortunately in "Extreme Prejudice" Hill fully develops the relationship between Jack and Sarita, so we don't have a wasted presence by the female lead as we did with Annette O'Toole in "48hrs." The conversation reveals that Jack and his nemesis, Cash Bailey were childhood friends and that Sarita also dated Cash before she was with Jack. Jack leaves for the office. By the time he gets to headquarters, a bomb has exploded in town killing a rival of Cash Bailey's. Jack gets word to his old friend that he wants to meet Cash south of the border.
The meeting between Jack and Cash on Cash's turf is right out of "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid." Both men try to use their friendship to get their way. Both men are on a path from which they can't veer. Jack has morals and Cash is in to deep. As in the Peckinpah movie the scene honors, both men walk away knowing that there will be bloodshed when they next meet.
The convoluted plot switches back and forth between Jack's pursuit of Cash Bailey and his problems with girlfriend Sarita. Don't forget those dead soldiers. Whatever their covert operation is, it involves robbing the bank where Cash Bailey launders his drug money. The robbery is right out of "The Getaway" up to and including the diversionary explosions, severed telephone lines and car chase.
Hill also draws inspiration from the murkiest, if most personal of Peckinpah's movies, "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia." Jack Benteen's character has the determination of Warren Oates' piano player/mercenary. There is a daylight shoot out between some drug dealers and Jack and Sheriff Pearson. This scene as with one section during the climatic massacre are lifted from "Garcia" in body and spirit.
No Peckinpah tribute would be complete without a salute to the climatic battle between Pike, Deke, Tector and Lyle and the army of General Mapache at the end of "The Wild Bunch." Hill and Milius have all of the film's major characters meet for a grand battle at Cash Bailey's Mexican stronghold. I won't say who is shooting at who, but I will say that Hill is obviously paying tribute to the master of violence. One of the risks of remaking a great movie, or so obviously paying tribute to them is the fact the works will be given side-by-side comparisons. While the shoot out at the end of "Extreme Prejudice" is well done and exciting, it pales by comparison to Peckinpah's masterpiece.
Another nod to Peckinpah are the well developed characters. These are all ballsy, macho men who also have very deep feelings. OK, so they express their emotions with a gun, but they aren't the cold killing machines of many action films. Clancey Brown and William Forsythe deliver very good performances in their minor roles. The fact they stand out speaks volumes about their performances, because Nolte and Rip Torn are in peak condition in this movie. Only Powers Booth waivers as the bad guy. During the film's ending, Mr. Booth seems to be drunk one minute and hopped up on coke the next. He is inconsistent during the weakest part of the script. Hill takes the Jack Elam/ Kris Kristofferson duel from "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" and puts Jack and Cash in the parts. It goes on way to long and is the film's biggest liability.
The fact that Hill and Milius made "Extreme Prejudice" such a blatant copy of the films of Peckinpah leads me to believe that it has to be an homage. It is derivative, but it is also enjoyable and delivers the goods. Despite the similarities between this film and Peckinpah's work, Hill's individual style in this and other films proves that he is not just another Peckinpah wannabe.
Next year, Hill is set to release "Undisputed," a prison boxing/crime drama which maybe his return to his form of yesteryear. For my money, Hill has only directed one post-"Extreme Prejudice" movie worth seeing. 1989's "Johnny Handsome" is one of my guilty pleasures. I have been a fan of bad-boy Mickey Rourke ever since his cameo as the arsonist in "Body Heat." "Johnny Handsome" is the tale of a criminal who has a facial deformity similar to the one portrayed in "Mask." He is surgically repaired, and the question becomes, can Johnny now change his inner ugliness. Evil cop, Lt. Drones (Morgan Freeman) is betting the answer is "No." The movie is a strong, brutal, character driven drama that I think is one of Hill's best films. It has the added treat of a sexy and evil performance by one of my favorites, Ellen Barkin. Lance Henrikson , Elizabeth McGovern, Scott Wilson (In Cold Blood) and Forest Whitaker also add powerful performances.
Hill's output after "Johnny Handsome" has been downhill (in my humble opinion). Even his all-star (Bruce Willis, Christopher Walken) remake of Kurosawa's "Yojimbo," "Last Man Standing" fell flat. Here's hoping that "Undisputed" will be a KO by Hill.