Today marks the return of Walter Hill to the big screen—with the Sylvester Stallone-starring Bullet to the Head, the director’s first theatrically released film since 2002’s Undisputed. His two-hander action poetry has surely been missed; it’s the kind of tough, taciturn, no-nonsense genre filmmaking that’s frequently dismissed by middlebrow critics and sorely lacking in today’s blockbuster-spectacle-superhero-driven marketplace. Hill, like his contemporary John McTiernan (or Howard Hawks before them), specializes in genre films revolving around professionals doing a “job of work,” with character revealed through deeds rather than pat psychology or endless chit-chat. He has remarked that all of his films are Westerns, and while he’s tried his hand at that particular genre, he’s just as equally adept at capturing the grit of a big city, so much so that one could propose a dialectic between the natural beauty of Hill’s landscapes and the rough topography of the urban milieu across his body of work. Here are my five favorite Hills—selected works from a filmography that’s overflowing with gems.
Equal parts Jean-Pierre Melville and Robert Bresson, Hill’s second feature is a patiently observed crime drama with mythic overtones. Bruce Dern, known only as “The Detective,” tries to track master getaway driver Ryan O’Neal—“The Driver.” The lack of proper names is only the first indicator of Hill’s existential intent: Cop and driver are the only two honorable men left, each with a personal code, however skewed, in a largely uncaring universe. Lest this sound too heavy, Hill punctuates The Driver with tense shootouts and some of the best car chases ever committed to celluloid.
The Long Riders is the first of Hill’s two unofficial homages to Sam Peckinpah’s seminal 1969 Western, The Wild Bunch. In a bold gimmick that pays off in spades, real-life actor brothers (James and Stacy Keach; David, Keith, and, Robert Carradine; Dennis and Randy Quaid; and Christopher and Nicholas Guest) portray, respectively, the James, Younger, Miller, and Ford brothers as Hill traces the dissolution of the famed James Gang. The period detail is impeccable and the set pieces so vivid as to almost surpass Peckinpah himself. Hill might sympathize with the outlaw gang, but he doesn’t romanticize them, contextualizing their actions in opposition to the soulless proto-corporate Pinkerton men who track them in a post-Civil War landscape riddled with the scars of a wounded nation.
Hill’s movies generally don’t overflow with political subtexts, but Southern Comfort is one of the great crypto-Vietnam movies. It makes sense that Hill would try his hand at such a thing; his professed favorite filmmaker is Robert Aldrich, who made Ulzana’s Raid, the greatest of the Vietnam allegories posing as Westerns. A group of National Guard reserves gather for weekend training in the Louisiana bayou, but this misfit band of fuck-ups and wannabes just want to hurry up and get training over with so they can drink. They wind up messing with the wrong swamp people, who begin tracking them through hostile and unfamiliar terrain. Hill doesn’t force the correlation to Vietnam any more than that, though finding themselves in a quagmire of their own making is surely obvious enough. The film settles into a tense groove as the weekend warriors try to evade the hunters and get home. Along with The Long Riders, Southern Comfort is Hill’s most visually sumptuous film; he instinctively “gets” the specifics of the location, reveling in both its natural beauty and inherent danger.
Johnny Handsome is perhaps Hill’s most soulful film: It hinges on a quiet, unprepossessing turn by Mickey Rourke, as a deformed criminal who gets cosmetic surgery and a second chance at life. Forest Whitaker is the doctor who believes that Rourke’s appearance and upbringing predetermined his criminal life from a young age; Morgan Freeman is the incredulous cop with a mean streak who thinks Rourke made his own choices. It’s a surprisingly heady conceit for a noir-ish crime thriller, with a few debates about nature vs. nurture and a genuine philosophical inquiry into the nature of rehabilitation. Of course, things go horribly awry, as Rourke is determined to take revenge on a crew that double crossed him and killed his partner. Hill casts a dour pallor over the film, muting the usually sunny New Orleans atmosphere; his interest in the darker, gothic history of the city suggests the dread hanging over his characters.
Here’s Kent Jones on Hill’s characters: “[His] antagonists have no extravagant dreams or lofty desires for a better life. They’ve long since resigned themselves to the fact that they’re stuck in nowheresville and battling for nothing much.” That’s an especially apt description of Extreme Prejudice, in which Nick Nolte (in arguably a career-best performance) plays an embattled Texas lawman hunting down his old buddy Powers Boothe, now a drug lord just across the border in Mexico. The film is action-packed, with a climatic shoot out that represents Hill’s second full-fledged Wild Bunch nod—but once again, the emotionally acute director instills a quiet sense of despair throughout. Nolte takes no pleasure in hunting his childhood pal, and for his part Boothe is a decadent, loutish kingpin; they’re both fighting over a woman who doesn’t seem to want anything to do with either of them. These men mostly seem to be going through the motions on their way to a seemingly pre-ordained final confrontation. Naturally, in the end, the victor simply slouches off, returning to whatever life they still have left.
Just missing the cut: Last Man Standing (1996), 48 Hours (1982), the unfairly maligned Red Heat (1988) and The Warriors (1979).