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The Essentials: The 5 Best Walter Hill Films

The Essentials: The 5 Best Walter Hill Films

It’s not that often that we call a new Sylvester Stallone-starring movie an event, let alone when it’s one as seemingly cheap and long-delayed as “Bullet to the Head,” which opens on Friday. But given that the film is the first theatrical feature in thirteen years from action legend Walter Hill, it’s certainly got our interest more than most similar films.

Hill started out as an assistant director, working on the likes of “The Thomas Crown Affair” and “Bullitt,” before graduating to screenwriter of Sam Peckinpah‘s “The Getaway,” and the Paul Newman vehicle “The Mackintosh Man” for John Huston. In 1975, he made his directorial debut on the Charles Bronson bare-knuckle boxing movie “Hard Times,” and went on to be a much in-demand name in the action genre over the next couple of decades.

Today, he’s perhaps best remembered for his part in the “Alien” movies (he co-wrote and co-produced the first three, and remains a co-producer with a credit on “Prometheus“), and the general response to “Bullet to the Head” doesn’t suggest that that’s about to change (though our Jess had a good time with the unreconstructed actioner). But still, it seemed like a good opportunity to cast our eye back toward his work, so we’ve picked out five of our favorite Walter Hill-directed pictures below. Disagree? Weigh in with your own opinions in the comments section.

“The Driver” (1978)
Hill once commented that every movie he ever made was a Western, even when it’s not evident on the surface. He was quoted as saying that he sets his films in “a stripped down moral universe that is, whatever the dramatic problems are, beyond the normal avenues of social control…of the problem, and I like to do that even within contemporary stories.” And that’s very much true with “The Driver,” his second film. A low-key existential action classic that really saw the filmmaker come into his own, it sees a nameless Driver (Ryan O’Neal), who makes his living in the getaway business, going head to head with The Detective (Bruce Dern), who’s determined to bring him down, even if he has to entrap him with a bank robbery to do so, while Isabelle Adjani is The Player who comes between them. Its influence on Nicholas Winding Refn‘s 2011 film “Drive” has been well noted, but its DNA can be found earlier. For instance, it’s hard to imagine Michael Mann‘s career being the same without Hill’s examination of two icy professionals on either side of the law, while Quentin Tarantino has nodded to “The Driver” more than once in his work. It’s undoubtedly stylized fare, right down to the hard-boiled dialogue, and Hill impresses with intense, never overblown car chases that are still among the finest ever made (arguably topping those in Sam Peckinpah‘s “The Getaway“). The spareness of the script — influenced by Jean-Pierre Melville and “Le Samourai” in particular — can be a touch alienating, especially for modern audiences used to more coddling from their thrillers, but we’d say that it remains Hill’s best film.

“The Warriors” (1979)
If “Hard Times” and “The Driver” displayed Hill’s debt to people like Peckinpah and the French New Wave, his third film (and first real cult hit) “The Warriors” showed that he could blend these things with a populist, almost comic-book sensibility, and it confirmed him as one of the most talented action directors around. Set in an ostensibly present-day New York that’s closer to a post-apocalyptic wasteland than the Big Apple, the film follows the titular gang — including Michael Beck‘s Swan, James Remar‘s Ajax, Terry Michos‘ Vermin, Marcelino Sanchez‘s Rembrandt and David Harris‘ Cochise — who are called to a meeting of all the New York gangs in Van Cortland’s Park, proposing a truce, only for their leader Cyrus (Roger Hill) to be framed for the murder of the leader of the Gramercy Riffs. The rest of the Warriors escape and try to head back to safer territory, but the leader of the Rogues, Luther (David Patrick Kelly), puts a hit on them, making them a target of every gang in the city. It’s, as you might expect from Hill, relatively spare and lean (the plot is, essentially, “go from point A to point B”), but he creates a rich world to play in, one that one suspects bears little relation to the real world at the time, but also feels shot through with the disco/punk/early hip-hop spirit of 1970s NYC. And Hill has a tremendous feel for the iconic, summoning up not just comic books, but also the Greek legend Anabasis, something hammered home in the recent director’s cut, which adds graphic-art bridging sequences and a new intro to really emphasize the film’s place as pop art. If some of the cast are a little patchy acting-wise, it’s made up for by the keen eye for physicality in picking them out, and by the rock’n’roll energy Hill brings to his direction. A middling success on release, it has matured over time into one of the most reliably entertaining midnight movies around.

“Southern Comfort” (1981)
Part of the post-Vietnam wave of actioners that included things like “First Blood,” “Southern Comfort” takes a not dissimilar plot to “The Warriors,” but repurposes it to the bayou of the 1970s, stripping out the more stylized elements of the earlier film to become one of Hill’s most brutal and satisfying films, and probably the closest he’s come to a full-on war picture. Set in Louisiana in the 1970s, it follows a group of National Guardsmen — including Powers Boothe, Keith Carradine, Fred Ward, Les Lannom, T.K. Carter and Peter Coyote — out for maneuvers in the swamps. Their patrol gets lost, and a misunderstanding with the cajun locals causes their commanding officer to be killed, and leaves them fighting for their lives and between each other. It’s something of a companion piece to “Deliverance,” albeit with a more flavorful brand of hillbilly adversary, more overt Vietnam parallels, and more fireworks. The script (by Hill’s regular producer Dave Giler) is smart and profane, and the cast, especially Boothe (in a breakout role) and Carradine are excellent. There’s a lot of subtext at play as well, the nominal heroes as much as fault for their own situation as anyone, and the Cajuns make surprisingly sympathetic villains. Hill’s pretty much at the peak of his powers at this point, and there’s a rough and tumble steeliness to the action, all embellished by an excellent score by slide guitarist Ry Cooder, in his second of seven collaborations with the director.  

“Streets Of Fire” (1984)
After “Southern Comfort,” Hill had the first major hit of his career with “48 Hrs,” the Eddie Murphy/Nick Nolte action-comedy, which bought him a fair amount of latitude in terms of what to make next. Unfortunately, that subsequent film, “Streets of Fire,” was a major flop (taking back barely half of its $15 million budget), and for a long time was seen as the runt of the litter in the director’s career. It’s growing a cult following, though, and, in our eyes, it’s about time. It might be somewhat style over substance, but it’s an engaging and distinctive piece of work, and one that’s aged surprisingly well. Set in a nameless time and place, a vaguely steampunkish, rock’n’roll-obsessed industrial city, it follows Tom Cody (Michael Pare), a soldier-for-fortune who rolls back into town when his ex-girlfriend, singer Ellen (Diane Lane), is kidnapped by The Bombers, a biker gang led by Raven (Willem Dafoe). It’s an essentially lawless world, like “The Warriors” turned up to eleven, and confirms, as if that earlier film had left any doubt, that Hill was one of the first “comic book” directors — in retrospect the film seems to be influential (for better or worse) on all kinds of contemporary tentpole and action filmmakers. And so it should be: Hill stages the action as impressively as ever, and creates a genuinely distinctive and energetic world (thanks in part to a great soundtrack). While you wonder what would have happened if, say, Kurt Russell had been in the lead role, Michael Pare’s blandness is turned into something closer to mystery in Hill’s hands, while Dafoe’s a great villain, Amy Madigan (as sidekick McCoy) is terrific fun, and Lane (then only 19) is worth fighting through a string of bikers for, even if she and Pare share little chemistry. It’s not the most substantial film Hill ever made, but it might be the most fun.

“Trespass” (1992)
Aside from his excellent work on the pilot for “Deadwood,” much of the late 1980s onwards saw diminishing returns from Hill, but there’s one often-overlooked gem right in the middle of that period that deserves a second look: “Trespass.” A script that had been penned years earlier by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, long before they made their names with “Back to the Future,” it centers on two fireman, Vince (Bill Paxton) and Don (William Sadler), who are given a map to hidden gold in an abandoned building in East St Louis. When they go to retrieve it, however, they accidentally witness an execution by a gang led by King James (Ice-T) and his number two, Savon (Ice Cube), who try to off them before going for the gold themselves. They’re only two factions in a complex cast of characters chasing the MacGuffin in a script that consciously nods to “Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” and there’s a morality play feel to Zemeckis and Gale’s script that goes as far back as Chaucer. But one shouldn’t read too much into the movie. It’s ultimately an unpretentious B- movie at heart, and one that’s genuinely thrilling, tense and enjoyably mean-spirited throughout, with Hill handling the action in a way that was somewhat lacking in the previous year’s “Another 48 Hrs.” The film also works as a kind of canny time capsule, with Cube and T both at the height of their fame and demonstrating the impressive screen presences that saw them move away from rap to acting. You suspect that if “Bullet to the Head” had antagonists of their charisma (and a script as taut as the one Hill had to work with), people would be a lot more excited about it.

Honorable Mentions: While they don’t have the stripped-down action purity of his very best work, “Hard Times,” “The Long Riders,” “Extreme Prejudice” and “Johnny Handsome” all have worthwhile elements to them, and his westerns, in “Geronimo: An American Legend” and “Wild Bill” are also admirable in places. His last notable film, “Last Man Standing,” has its charms too, in its 1920s spin on “Yojimbo.” His biggest breakout hit, “48 Hrs” (though it was actually outgrossed by inferior sequel “Another 48 Hrs“), essentially invented the buddy comedy, though it hasn’t aged as well as “Beverly Hills Cop.” And one shouldn’t forget Hill’s power as a writer and producer, from early gig “The Getaway” (which he was originally meant to co-write with Peter Bogdanovich, before penning it on his own) to his crucial uncredited work, with frequent collaborator David Giler, on the original “Alien.”

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