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Critic’s Notebook: From ‘Hard Times’ To This Week’s ‘Bullet to the Head,’ How Walter Hill’s Movies Tap Into the Essence of New Orleans

Critic's Notebook: From 'Hard Times' To This Week's 'Bullet to the Head,' How Walter Hill's Movies Tap Into the Essence of New Orleans

Walter Hill’s 1975 debut “Hard Times” was shot in New Orleans, albeit one dressed for a ’30s setting. He returned for 1989’s “Johnny Handsome,” so this week’s new released “Bullet To The Head” is his third visit — and the first after Hurricane Katrina’s devastation. The disaster inevitably changed the city’s on-screen charge.

In 2002, Louisiana passed new legislation entitling productions that spend a minimum of $300,000 in the state to a tax credit equivalent to 30% of their budget. The program’s budgetary efficiency has been questioned, but states constantly steal production from each other through these tactics. (E.g., Louisiana’s budgetary incentives stole work away from the until-then booming Texas industry.)

In Katrina’s wake, the state’s tax incentives had the unexpected side effect of offering financial bait to record the devastation. The first filmmaker I recall taking up the challenge was Tony Scott with 2006’s “Deja Vu,” which plunged right into the flooded, rotting houses and general muck of an assaulted city. The inciting incident is the bombing of the Algiers ferry, which runs from the East to West Bank. In operation since 1827, its explosive detonation operates as a simile for the levees breaking. “Deja Vu” skips over familiar signifiers of New Orleans — jazz parades on the streets, carnivals and krewes, French Quarter debauchery — instead locating itself at a particularly depressing historical moment. “Katrina only made us stronger,” a poster announces in the background, but the message is undercut by what we see.

Obviously, not every film shot in New Orleans post-Katrina is a post-Katrina New Orleans film. Some movies use it as an inexpensive substitute for another urban environment, like last year’s “21 Jump Street,” which deliberately avoids naming its location; if you weren’t from there, you’d never guess where the film was shot.

Other movies use New Orleans’ most barren areas to stand in for other urban casualties. In last year’s “Killer Joe,” New Orleans is supposed to be Dallas, but it’s the Dallas of down-and-out marginal losers, not the haven of oil millionaires. Likewise, “Killing Them Softly” relocates George V. Higgins’ novel “Cogan’s Run” from ’70s recession-era Boston to an unnamed but similarly blighted locale. The streets are empty, with windblown newspapers and detritus serving as this landscape’s contemporary tumbleweeds.

New Orleans can support this kind of abuse: Just as it has enough anonymous highways and interiors for “21 Jump Street,” there are enough decrepit areas without architecturally specific features to stand in for generic dispossession. Movies that engage with the city’s recognizable landscape without getting touristic or overly despairing are relatively rare. 2009’s John Cena action vehicle “12 Rounds” gives it a shot by building an entire action setpiece around an out-of-control trolley car: not a trait unique to New Orleans alone, but an opportunity to show off some distinctive architecture along the way, a challenge the movie otherwise mostly ducks.

In some ways, Walter Hill’s revisitation of his first film city seems designed to be a c.-1989 buddy comedy, the kind they don’t make anymore. Plot-wise, it’s closer to Kevin Smith’s (unfairly!) derided 2010 action spoof “Cop Out” than any contemporaneous crime drama. Professional hitman Jimmy Bobo (Sylvester Stallone) teams up with straight-arrow Washington D.C. cop Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang), two uneasy partners whose current and ex-partners have both been murdered by the same people. The plot’s very familiar: corruption in high places, male bonding during car rides, psychotic ex-mercenary henchmen.

The under-90-minute movie has been seemingly designed to be disconnected from any contemporary New Orleans realities while serving as a checklist of upbeat city signifiers: the inevitable ferry, street jazz parade, a bar with zydeco musicians. The climax, though, is set in the Market Street Power Plant, a different kind of landmark with more local importance than immediately evident. Built in 1905 and defunct by 1973, it still looked plausibly active when Hill shot bare-knuckle fights there for “Hard Times.” Thirty-plus years later, in “Bullet To The Head,” it’s a dilapidated, graffiti ridden, multi-story labyrinth, perfect for an action finale.

It’s also thematically relevant for a New Orleans film. The bad guys in “Bullet To The Head” are conspiring to (no spoilers here) take old buildings and turning them into condos and other soullessly profitable ventures. This seems like a generic MacGuffin, but do a little research into the Market Street Power Plant’s history and it’s all true.

Post Katrina, the property was snapped up by a Miami developer, with the intent of converting it into 1,500 condos, a hotel, and so on. The developers eventually went bankrupt, and subsequent investigation revealed embarrassing levels of something looking very much like official collusion (former mayor Ray Nagin was offered a “piece of the action” in an email, and was subsequently hired to consult on the project).

“We still believe this city has a bright economic future,” one of the baddies says. Later, another villain speaks more bluntly: “This city is up for grabs, always has been.” In revisiting the Market Street Power Plant, “Bullet To The Head” finds a tacit signifier of New Orleans in continual crisis, a personal landmark from the Hill catalogue with real world resonance.

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