Capsule Reviews: Walter Hill
Walter Hill may be the single greatest ever director of American action movies. Certainly, few directors working in the U.S. have made as many important and enduring films in the genre. Hill once memorably said, "all of my films are westerns", and it's a statement that is crucial to understanding his work. Since the mid-1970s, Hill has made tough, masculine movies about characters surviving in environments where law and order has broken down or does not exist.
Hill is also an accomplished writer, known for his terse and minimalist style which has helped to shape the unique worldview of his movies. In addition to his firm handling of action, he is also a great visual stylist and often injects humour into his life-and-death scenarios. As Hill said in another memorable description of his work, "the jokes are funny but the bullets are real." Besides his own work as writer-director, Hill has also co-written notable movies made by others, notably Ridley Scott's Alien (1979).
The capsule reviews below, presented in chronological order, are taken (and slightly edited) from my Letterboxd profile. Follow me there for more reviews, primarily of action movies from around the world.
Hard Times (1975) ★★★★½
A wonderfully economical debut set in 1930s New Orleans, Walter Hill's Hard Times set the blueprint for much of the director's subsequent career.
Charles Bronson is excellent as Chaney, an archetypal loner of few words who drifts into Depression-era Louisiana looking to make some money on the illegal fight circuit. His guide is the rogueish hustler "Speed", played by James Coburn. This pairing of two leads, one a talkative foil to the other, is just one of numerous features that Hard Times shares with later films by Hill.
The '30s atmosphere Hill creates on a modest budget is fantastic, and the fights have a visceral feel to them for 1975. As is the director's style, action never overwhelms what is most important - the characters and their codes, without which they cannot function. Strother Martin provides great support as a junior partner to our leads, and even Frank McRae appears briefly as a mob enforcer.
The Warriors (1979) ★★★★★
The Warriors is one of the cult films of all time. A standout even within the terrific filmography of Walter Hill, it richly deserves the huge legacy it has built up over the years.
The crucial decision to set this loose adaptation of Sol Yurick's novel within what Hill called "a different kind of reality" underpins and informs every aspect of the production. Bobbie Mannix's costume design, the casting, Andrew Laszlo's amazing cinematography, and Craig Baxley's action design all flow from and reinforce the unique hyper-real New York through which The Warriors are forced to flee for their lives. It's easy to imagine how all this could have helped inspire John Wick - and of course the films share a cast member in David Patrick Kelly.
The beautifully edited opening cuts between several distinct types of shots to deftly introduce the world, its gangs, the Warriors themselves and the "conclave" they attend. This is just one example of Hill's genius for accomplishing a great deal without dialogue, and sets up the series of chases, interludes and battles which dominate the bulk of the film. It's just stunning film-making, and the finished effect absolutely earns all the quoting, the special showings, and the whole cult reputation The Warriors now has.
The Long Riders (1980) ★★★★
His first true Western, The Long Riders is Walter Hill's document of the James-Younger gang in love and war: periodically breaking up and reuniting until their eventual dissolution.
Of the seven classics Hill made between 1975 and and 1984, The Long Riders is the only one the director did not have a hand in writing. The script and story is the main relative weakness of the film, but this is really a reflection of the difficulty in summarising the complex life histories of the gang members. Hill has said that the film has a kind of four-act structure, but it feels more haphazard than that, never quite coalescing into a fully satisfying story.
The so-called "gimmick" (read: excellent and appropriate) inclusion of four sets of brothers is the best-remembered aspect of the film, but this emphatically post-Peckinpah Western has a lot more to offer. Ry Cooder's music is terrific, the first of several collaborations with Hill. Bobbie Mannix's costumes are excellent, as is the whole authentic feel of post-Civil War Missouri. Finally, the action is tremendous, with a gripping final shootout and a knife fight between David Carradine and James Remar.
Southern Comfort (1981) ★★★★½
One of Walter Hill's very best films, Southern Comfort is a brilliantly tense survival story set within the foreboding Louisiana bayou. The story has its similarities to Hill's earlier film The Warriors but has an altogether different atmosphere. Easily written off as a Vietnam allegory, it's really much more than that.
The ensemble cast is uniformly excellent, with Keith Carradine and Powers Boothe the standouts. The cast and crew did not have much fun shooting in the bayou in winter, but it produced a uniquely stark and ominous feel which was captured superbly by cinematographer Andrew Laszlo - a veteran of The Warriors, and who would later work on the similar First Blood.
48 Hrs. (1982) ★★★★½
In 1982, 48 Hrs. became Walter Hil's most successful film to date. One of the best cop films of the 1980s, the film was a major hit for Paramount and represents the commercial peak of Hill's classic period, his initial run of seven excellent films. It's also quite central to his filmography, in the sense that the supporting cast is made up by a number of Hill's favourite players - James Remar, Sonny Landham, Brion James, Peter Jason, and so on.
48 Hrs. undermined the foundations of the buddy cop movie even as it cemented them. Far from being "buddies", cop Jack Cates (Nolte) and convict Reggie Hammond (Murphy) actively hate one another, and partner up through coercion, deception and naked self-interest. Neither of the protagonists are particularly likeable in the conventional sense - Cates is a brutal San Francisco cop who makes Harry Callahan look liberal, and Hammond is a egocentric, misogynist thief.
What is hugely likeable is the terrific script. Not a great deal happens in 48 Hrs., but the dialogue is consistently gripping throughout. Whether Hammond is terrorising a country-western bar or Cates is battling his colleagues at the station (in a clever, mobile long take), the lines are naturalistic and extremely funny. Both leads are excellent alone, but when they're on screen together they're explosive.
This interplay is the core of the film, as the villains (Remar and Landham) are often on the periphery of this shaggy-dog story. That being said, Hill offers a number of thrilling shootouts and Ric Waite's cinematography has some amazing moments, particularly Cates' entrance in the climax. While it's not the best film of Hill's stellar early career, 48 Hrs. is one of the most consistently entertaining films of its genre and simply couldn't be made today.
Streets of Fire (1984) ★★★★
Empowered by the huge success of 48 Hrs. (1982), Hill and his producers came up with an ambitious, unique action-musical, a "rock & roll fable" set within a world of almost pure myth. Hill's films had possessed a mythic quality before, but Streets of Fire went all out in this respect: it has deliberately archetypal characters and a barebones plot, set in a time and place that never existed. Something so unique was surely bound to flop, and - being widely misunderstood - Streets of Fire did exactly that.
It's easy to imagine why it was such a source of confusion in 1984, but Hill's film is enormously entertaining - particularly for those familiar with his style and preoccupations. The film is visually stunning, thanks in part to the efforts of cinematographer Andrew Laszlo, a veteran of Hill's previous films The Warriors and Southern Comfort. The score by frequent Hill collaborator Ry Cooder is excellent, as are the numerous songs - two of which are written by Jim Steinman, a perfect fit for the film's neon-lit, neo-1950s aesthetic.
The cast is unusual, but star Michael Paré is better than usually described. His "flat" performance isn't a world away from that of Michael Beck as Swan in The Warriors, another actor who sadly never came to anything. Hill originally intended to shoot two sequels, which would have seen the character Tom Cody pursue more adventures first in a snowy setting and finally in a desert. Paré might have had the chance to grow into the role, but the failure of Streets of Fire nixed these plans.
Streets of Fire is essentially the Rosetta stone of Hill's unique filmography, packed with his collaborators and favoured elements: tough talk, crisp action, fantastic visuals, a fine score, and an inimitable mythic feel which draws from the Western. It may lack a story and script that is the match of the director's best films, but it's an exceptionally entertaining ride and absolutely one of a kind.
Brewster's Millions (1985) ★★★
In 1985, the desire to score a solid financial hit compelled Walter Hill to make his only straight-up comedy film. The radical shift in genre didn't mean a complete break with Hill's previous work, as several of his prior collaborators were involved: producer Lawrence Gordon, composer Ry Cooder, and actors Peter Jason, Rick Moranis and and Alan Autry in small parts.
It's fair to say that Hill was involved with an established story, as the 1902 novel Brewster's Millions had already been filmed six times. The director does a good job of unlocking the anarchic potential of the story, with Richard Pryor as a good comic lead. The issue is that the script isn't very strong, and in particular gives co-star John Candy too little to do. By comparison, Hill's earlier film 48 Hrs., while not a comedy, is much funnier, owing to its far superior script.
Hill did nothing overly special with his version of Brewster's Millions, but it's a fascinating look at the director working in a very unfamiliar genre, explicitly - and successfully - seeking a hit.
Extreme Prejudice (1987) ★★★★
Representing Walter Hill's return to action movies after an absence of a few years, Extreme Prejudice was maybe too idiosyncratic to succeed even in the late '80s boom for the genre. Based on a years-old story by John Milius, it's a kind of neo-western indebted to Sam Peckinpah and set on the U.S.-Mexico border.
The film's odd marketing set it up as a battle between Nick Nolte's taciturn Texas Ranger and Michael Ironside's special forces "zombie squad", but the Ranger's real rival is a childhood friend gone bad played with evil relish by real-life Texan Powers Boothe. This is a mythic aspect to the story, counterbalanced by the cynical reality of the cross-border drugs trade. At times, this seems like a precursor to Sicario, albeit in an action mode.
Nolte, Ironside and Boothe are all excellent and the "zombie squad" is populated by a host of likeable character actors, not least a creepy William Forsythe. Milius saw the film as right-wing hero worship, but in Hill's hands the squad is mostly reprehensible; only Clancy Brown expresses any doubt in their scorched-earth operation.
As ever, Hill's action is top-notch although the finale seems a little truncated. Not on the same level as his "magnificent seven" initial run, Extreme Prejudice is still a superior action-thriller with more on its mind than most shoot-'em-ups of the era - it will more than satisfy Hill fans.
Red Heat (1988) ★★★★
While it wasn't the first buddy cop film, Hill's 48 Hrs. (1982) helped popularise the genre and firm up its conventions. Released the year after Lethal Weapon, Hill's next take on the material is more mainstream and hits all the expected beats. What really lifts it up a level is the surprisingly effective comic pairing of Schwarzenegger with Jim Belushi, as well as some excellent supporting performances from Ed O'Ross and Laurence Fishburne.
Enlivened with Hill's usual crisp action, Red Heat is one of the most underrated Schwarzenegger action vehicles and an important entry in both Hill's career and the buddy cop canon.
Johnny Handsome (1989) ★★★½
With Johnny Handsome Walter Hill makes a kind of Poverty Row precusor to Face/Off, but plays it very straight. There are two very muscular shootouts in Hill's sturdy style, but much of the film is a kind of crime drama about how getting a new face does or does not change Mickey Rourke (prescient, as it turns out). Rourke is quite convincing in his portrayal of a man who is unfamiliar with his own face ("it still feels like I'm wearing mask") but the setup isn't too believable. Ellen Barkin is possibly the star attraction as a thoroughly unhinged gun moll. One of the better minor Hills, but it's also easy to see how this has become obscure.
Another 48 Hrs. (1990) ★★★
Another 48 Hrs. isn't close to a match for the original, but it has its moments. The big difference here is that the balance of humour and action is swapped - there are very few jokes here, but a lot more in the way of shootouts. It's tempting to think that Hill had seen The Killer by the time he made this; the final shootout has all the breaking glass, slow-motion and acrobatic dives of a Woo film. Of course, Hill had designs on a US remake of The Killer which never came to pass.
In its released cut, Another 48 Hrs. too often feels like a crudely-written excuse to reheat the highlights of the original. Various scenes are almost direct lifts, and this sequel is never given the chance to carve out its own identity. As in a lot of these cases, it's hard not to imagine what might have been. Still, it's entertaining enough seeing Reggie and Jack on screen again - even if their return could have (and perhaps in another cut, was) so much more.
Trespass (1992) ★★★
This is an "urban isolation" action-thriller in the vein of Assault on Precinct 13, a setup which allows Hill's Western-style frontier confrontation to take place in the modern world.
Bills Sadler and Paxton are very good as a couple of greedy, bickering Arkansas firefighters looking to score a lost treasure in a derelict building in East St. Louis. The criminal faction led by Ices T and Cube is a bit underdeveloped and the film struggles to justify its existence over 105 minutes - the single location wears thin. Still, Hill delivers his usual muscular action scenes and frequent collaborator Ry Cooder's replacement score (after Hill sacked John Zorn at the last minute) is suitably ominous.
Geronimo: An American Legend (1993) ★★½
Five days before Walter Hill's Geronimo opened, TNT broadcast a TV movie on the same subject. The timing must have contributed to the film's failure (this being the first of two consecutive western flops for Hill), but doesn't account for its own evident weaknesses.
Like so many historical projects, Hill's film simply bites off more than it can chew. Geronimo's life was intensely complex and contradictory, and while the film's odd structure tries to trace these contours, it leaves an indifferent impression. The cast is excellent, but the story is so meandering and the focus spread so thin that even the main stars like Studi, Hackman, and Duvall can seem as if they are relegated to extended cameos.
Last Man Standing (1996) ★★★½
Made after a run of his more obscure films, Last Man Standing is Walter Hill's genre-bending and financially unsuccessful remake of Kurosawa's Yojimbo. Having just made two westerns, Hill wasn't keen to do another - but the dusty West Texas setting and the familiar story constantly bring to mind Leone's A Fistful of Dollars, itself a remake of Kurosawa's film. At the same time, the film's dialogue and narration owe a debt to noir, and its two-fisted gunfights to the work of John Woo.
These disparate elements mesh surprisingly well, but Last Man Standing isn't particularly accessible. Although it's brisk (due partly to significant edits to bring the runtime down), this is an oppressive, dour, and bleak piece of work. The story is about a bad man, in a bad place, at a bad time - and it clearly isn't for everyone.
For those who are already on board with Hill, or who intrigued by the unique combination of genres, Last Man Standing has a lot to offer. It's a novel take on a very familiar story, and has a strong cast - it could have just used a little more action to counteract the coldness of the script. Second-tier Hill it may be, but the film is a cut above a lot of comparable films.
Supernova (2000) ★½
Supernova had by far the most troubled production of any Walter Hill film. So gruelling was the project that Hill eventually quit, leaving MGM to try to salvage it with Francis Ford Coppola ad then credit it to "Thomas Lee". It could be argued, though, that the film was in some ways doomed before cameras had begun to roll.
This is because Supernova has a drab and uninspired story which adds nothing to the a sub-genre occupied by the likes of Alien and Event Horizon. All the cut effects shots, wildly stupid studio decisions, and the misguided softening of Hill's intended darker tone cannot account for this vacuum at the heart of the project, which is not salvaged even by good performances by Angela Bassett and James Spader. If this can be thought of as a Hill film - which is doubtful - it would definitely be among his worst.
Bullet to the Head (2012) ★★★
Bullet to the Head is a very familiar "buddy" cop exercise set in New Orleans, saddled with a pretty poor script loosely adapted from a French graphic novel. What makes it of interest (but which wasn't enough to save it from being a flop) is that it's the first collaboration between Sly Stallone and Walter Hill.
Hill was brought on as a replacement director, and he and Stallone reportedly completed the script, which may explain why the film is so rough around the edges. One of the most glaring elements is Sung Kang's character, who is woefully underdeveloped and exists mainly as an accessory for his phone. However, Bullet in the Head is an enjoyable ride for fans of Hill and Stallone, despite its flaws. The story fits perfectly within Hill's usual mould, and the action is strong - particularly the climax, in which Sly takes on the underused and excellent Jason Momoa.
The Assignment (2016) ★½
Hill's controversial sex change revenge thriller has a strong concept and some good performances. But hamstrung by his own very poor script and a tiny $5 million budget, the genre veteran turns in a muddled, often boring mess.
Your comment will be posted after it is approved.
Leave a Reply.
I write about classic science fiction and occasionally fantasy; I sometimes make maps for Doom II; and I'm a contributor to the videogames site Entertainium, where I regularly review new games.