Walter Hill

Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: a guide to the peerless action craftsmanship of director Walter Hill. 

(Author’s note: In the interest of tidiness, the following Primer includes only the features Walter Hill has directed, leaving out a number of significant projects he wrote and/or produced and a number of notable works for television, including Tales From The Crypt, Broken Trail, and the Deadwood pilot. His heavy behind-the-scenes involvement in the Alien franchise is the most conspicuous and regrettable absence, but his scripts for Hickey & Boggs and Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway were also key early indicators of his sensibility.) 

Walter Hill 101: The Auteur
In an interview for Patrick McGilligan in Backstory 4, Walter Hill talked about the “revelation” of reading Alex Jacob’s script for John Boorman’s 1967 classic Point Blank. Hill had been laboring as a screenwriter, but was never comfortable with the template most Hollywood scripts required of him, which he said was “a sub-literary blueprint for shooting a picture and generally had no personal voice.” Hill admired Point Blank greatly, but on the page, Jacob’s work showed him a new way of writing: “Laconic, elliptical, suggestive rather than explicit, bold in the implied editorial style.” And from that example, Hill’s own writing—and later, directing—took on what he calls an almost “haiku-like” economy. At Hill’s best, his work as writer and director is as tight as a clenched fist, with not a word wasted in the dialogue and a simplicity of expression that extends from character development to the diamond-tight action sequences on which he built his reputation. 

By the time he got the opportunity to direct his first feature, 1975’s terrific (and woefully unheralded) Hard Times, Hill had disciplined himself as rigorously as his street-fighter hero, played by a cagey Charles Bronson. Set in Depression-era New Orleans, the film follows Bronson’s drifter as he rides a boxcar into town and parlays his last $6 on himself in an underground bare-knuckle boxing match. James Coburn co-stars as his newfound partner and manager, and the two have great chemistry together: Coburn the loose-lipped, charismatic braggart who elides creditors and knows all the angles, and Bronson the strong, silent type who lets his right hook do the talking. The fight scenes present the rules-free, no-holds-barred world of bare-knuckle boxing without holding back on the brutality; Bronson’s most fearsome rival is shown beating a man senseless with his bald, bulbous head, with a creepy smile on his face. But beyond the ownage, Hill has a credible feel for the street-level desperation of the times, when men would destroy their bodies for a little bit of green. 

Incredibly, Hill stripped down his style even further for his stellar follow-up, 1978’s The Driver, an almost Zen-like genre exercise that combines his sensational action choreography with a minimalism worthy of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï. How minimalist? None of the characters have names. They’re only referred to by occupation: The Driver, The Detective, and The Woman, most prominently. And the eponymous character, played by Ryan O’Neal, only says 350 words in the entire movie. (Which automatically qualifies it as the most brilliant use of O’Neal’s limited talents in a movie ever.) Hill intended the project for Steve McQueen, but playing the best getaway driver in the business, O’Neal uses his enigmatic looks and opaque blue eyes as an acceptable substitute. The real stars of the film, however, are the masterful chase scenes through the sprawl of Los Angeles, frequently shot at bumper-level to amplify the sense of speed and danger. Here was a director who was finding his own style by threading the needle between genre deconstructionists like Melville, Monte Hellman, and Sam Peckinpah, and the high-impact commercial films of John Frankenheimer or William Friedkin. 

Losing none of his momentum—his mid-’70s to early-’80s heyday rivals any of his contemporaries—Hill went back to basics by turning to Xenophon for 1979’s The Warriors, Hill’s seminal cult film about the hero’s (or, in this case, heroes’) perilous journey home. Adapted from Sol Yurick’s novel, the film was dismissed by many as tasteless exploitation, a cartoon vision of the real gang infestation that plagued New York City at the time. But the cartoonishness of gangs like the Baseball Furies, the Hi-Hats, and the all-lesbian Lizzies are a large part of what makes The Warriors so much fun, combined with Hill’s moody, noir-inflected take on the city after hours. Having the gangs of New York gather in one place for a speech suggesting they unite and consolidate power (“Can yoooooouuuu diiiiiigggggg it?!”) is a law-abiding citizen’s worst nightmare, but the sustained nightmare of the film is one gang’s trek across enemy turf to its Coney Island home base. One of the rare tailor-made cult movies that deserves its cult, The Warriors has an elemental power that transcends camp, even as it presents street toughs in clown makeup and mime suspenders.

Hill has stated that all of his films are Westerns, in the sense that Westerns have “a stripped-down moral universe that is, whatever the dramatic problems are, beyond the normal avenues of social control and social alleviation of the problem.” But he’s also directed more than his share of honest-to-goodness Westerns, none better than 1980’s The Long Riders, which capitalized brilliantly on using real-life siblings (James and Stacy Keach; David, Robert, and Keith Carradine; Dennis and Randy Quaid; and Nicholas and Christopher Guest) to play members of the James-Younger gang and their various cohorts and hangers-on. Entire movies have been built around short sections of the film—like Philip Kaufman’s The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid or Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford—but The Long Riders doesn’t feel shallow or overly condensed by comparison. Hill just cuts right to the bone, as usual, following the James-Younger gang as it begins to unravel, starting with a needlessly bloody bank job in Missouri and culminating in a fateful ambush by Pinkerton agents and townsmen in Minnesota. The Northfield sequence is fittingly explosive, as Hill sorts through the chaos of these legendary gunmen fending off shooters on all sides, but the film gets the smaller details right, too, picking up on the lingering tensions of post-Civil War America. 

Before getting into 1981’s Southern Comfort—a near-perfect synthesis of backwoods action, dark comedy, and acrid political metaphor—consider the three leading men: Keith Carradine, Powers Boothe, and Fred Ward. Does it get any better than that? Carradine, Boothe, and Ward play three of the more mature members of a motley gang of Louisiana national guardsmen dispatched to the Bayou for training exercises (officially) and rowdy, dumb, alpha-male tomfoolery (unofficially). And as with The Long Riders, a single foolish mistake causes the entire mission to unravel, when these Weekend Warriors “borrow” some canoes to get across a flooded river and one of them jokingly fires blanks at a group of Cajuns on the bank. The Cajuns fire back real bullets, hit an officer in the head, and it’s war. Only it’s war on the Cajuns’ turf, and the guardsmen are woefully ill-prepared to navigate a terrain littered with deadly traps and ambushes. The allegorical connection is unmistakable: This is Vietnam, where many platoons were mired in a directionless abyss, reduced to sitting ducks in the booby-trapped jungles their enemies called home. Generally averse to political statement, Hill doesn’t underline the Vietnam theme too heavily, instead playing up a clash between two factions that cannot resolve their misunderstanding in any way except escalating the violence. Southern Comfort has never gotten the same respect as Deliverance, but it’s the more exciting and richer of the two, with a particularly flavorful score by Ry Cooder, who became Hill’s Bernard Herrmann from The Long Riders onward.  

After The Long Riders, Hill didn’t get a chance to officially return to the Western until the ’90s, first with Geronimo: An American Legend and more distinctively with 1995’s Wild Bill, an underrated examination of Wild Bill Hickok’s last days that balances a rueful, elegiac tone with episodes of bleached-out psychedelia. Hill got his chance to launch a steadier, perhaps more satisfying Hickok arc when he directed the pilot of HBO’s Deadwood, but there’s something more personal and experimental about his approach to the biopic here. Played by the reliably excellent Jeff Bridges, Hickok enters his final days in Deadwood, South Dakota as a living legend, which in the Old West is never good for a person’s health. Hill establishes Hickok’s grandeur through a rat-a-tat montage of famous shootouts, then proceeds to consider the man in twilight, struggling to get out from under the immense shadow of his own mystique. Adapting Thomas Babe’s play Fathers And Sons and Pete Dexter’s novel Deadwood, Hill messily hybridized both sources with dubious history, but the film has more than its share of pleasures, including John Hurt’s irony-laden voiceover narration and a showdown where Hickok agrees to square off against a wheelchair-bound man (Hill regular Bruce Dern) so long as he’s bound to a chair himself. 

And while we’re on underrated Hill movies, there’s no accounting for the shrugs that greeted 2002’s Undisputed, which returned Hill to an underground boxing scene reminiscent of the one in Hard Times and brought him back more generally to the simple force of titanic men beating the hell out of each other. The premise could be sketched on a cave wall: Sweetwater Prison in the Mojave Desert. Wesley Snipes plays the undisputed heavyweight champion of a brutal prison boxing ring. Ving Rhames, a heavyweight champion on the outside, gets sent to Sweetwater on a sexual-assault rap. The two duke it out. That’s it. Always looking to pare things down, Hill uses onscreen titles as an ingenious, frequently witty way to get information across without dialogue; when setting up the fights, he uses boxing stats and rap sheets. Hill also has an excellent feel for the stark brutality of prison and the sport (“People play baseball,” Rhames says. “Nobody plays boxing.”), and few movies go through the paces so efficiently. Too bad Miramax, the film’s distributor, showed so little confidence in it. What more could the studio have wanted? 


Intermediate: The Craftsman
Throughout much of the ’80s, Hill had a difficult time reconciling the strong personal vision he’d refined in the early part of his career with the commercial demands of a Hollywood studio system that was regaining control. He also started making movies for producer Joel Silver, who came to personify Hollywood’s crass excesses and addiction to formula, though that reputation isn’t entirely fair. But as a craftsman-for-hire, Hill helped define the modern buddy picture with 1982’s 48 Hrs., the film that made Eddie Murphy a star. Watching it today, two things stand out: 1. As a convicted hustler who’s granted release to help a San Francisco detective (Nick Nolte) track down a cop-killer, Murphy gives a sharp, charismatic, effortlessly naturalistic performance that he would never repeat in his shtick-filled career. It’s akin to Robert De Niro jumping from Mean Streets straight to the Meet The Parents series. 2. Nick Nolte plays a stone-cold racist—not the cute, crusty, get-off-my-lawn type seen in the sequel, but a man given to calling his new partner “watermelon.” In those two senses, the film is a fascinating artifact of a long-ago period; in all other regards, it’s a satisfying, well-crafted entertainment that finds Hill effortlessly delivering the goods. 

Following 48 Hrs., Hill’s career entered into a tailspin fueled by a failed commercial outing (Brewster’s Millions), a hard-to-define action-musical-period hybrid (Streets Of Fire), and a botched attempt to channel his longstanding musical obsessions into an ’80s formula picture (Crossroads). Made for Andrew Vajna and Mario Kassar, the Golan/Globus-esque rogues at the action-happy production house Carolco, Hill’s 1987 shoot-’em-up Extreme Prejudice feels like his attempt to get back on terra firma by pitting a trio of man’s-men—Nolte, Boothe, and Michael Ironside—against one another in a bloody, explosion-filled battle royal. Nolte does surprisingly credible work as a shotgun-toting Texas lawman; Boothe plays a drug dealer who also happens to be his former best friend and current romantic rival; and Ironside leads an off-the-grid team of CIA paramilitary fighters looking to muck up both their plans. The intrigue gets confusing at times, and the mayhem isn’t much more intellectually elevated than a Missing In Action flick, but it’s unpretentious and rousing at times, with a finale that pays explicit homage to Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch

The L.A. riots short-circuited Hill’s attempt to release Looters, his clever urban twist on Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, in 1992. So the film was retitled Trespass and released to theaters without fanfare, tainted by a bad reputation that it couldn’t live down. But as with a lot of Hill’s work, it has a B-movie efficiency and verve that critics tend to underappreciate. The smartly conceived script, by the writing team of Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale (Back To The Future), draws on Sierra Madre and contemporizes its themes about greed and the evil that seemingly decent men are capable of. Bill Paxton and William Sadler play Arkansas firemen who head into the bombed-out ghettos of East St. Louis on a treasure hunt; Ices T and Cube are the drug dealers who stand in their way. Driven by greed, Paxton and Sadler make bad decisions that metastasize into worse decisions, and before long, they’re flanked by hostiles and not necessarily looking like the good guys. With references to the Rodney King beating and a racially charged atmosphere, Trespass skirts the line between exploitation and social commentary, ultimately landing as a relentless, smarter-than-average thriller that’s aware of the combustible elements it’s mixing.

For the most part, Hill has never been given to awards-grubbing, but his 1993 Western Geronimo: An American Legend has the pedigree and sweep of an Oscar-winner, with a script by John Milius, a cast that includes such heavy-hitters as Robert Duvall, Gene Hackman, and Matt Damon, and a theme of Native American persecution and heroism that might stir voters’ guilty consciences. The film fizzled out on all fronts in December ’93, and though it feels more earnest and weighty than other Hill productions, it has some redeeming qualities, foremost Wes Studi’s performance as the eponymous figure, an Apache leader who rebels against the broken promises of the American government. Not content with the allotment of reservation land given to his people, Studi’s Geronimo leads a 30-man rebellion that proves surprisingly durable against the military’s superior man- and firepower. Attacked, not unreasonably, as a politically correct gloss on the real Geronimo, the film has an unambiguously positive take on the man that it pushes through with the sort of stately gravitas Hill usually takes pains to avoid at all costs.

[pagebreak]

Advanced: For Fans Only 
What to make of Hill’s 1984 “rock ’n’ roll fable” Streets Of Fire? It’s an action film about a mercenary rescuing his ex-girlfriend. It’s a musical that deliberately confuses retro-’50s pop with the unmistakable contemporary sounds of ’80s radio. It has some of the worst performances in Hill’s entire oeuvre—particularly the Stallone-voiced Michael Paré as the mercenary and a miscast Amy Madigan as his tough-gal sidekick—and one of the best in Willem Dafoe’s performance as a twisted greaser who fronts a motorcycle gang. Streets Of Fire has something to please and displease everybody, which helps explain why it tanked as a would-be summer blockbuster while gaining a sizable cult following in the process. Set in a nocturnal urban landscape that owes more to comic books than movies, the film has a lot in common with The Warriors, another fable that exists in a world both familiar and luridly distorted. And though Streets Of Fire is a shaky piece of work, Hill nails the epic fisticuffs between Paré and Dafoe, and the performance sequences are often spectacular, especially when an absolutely smokin’ Diane Lane takes the stage as the frontwoman of Ellen Aim And The Attackers. 

Great music was also front and center—if not the entire raison d’être—for Hill’s 1986 bomb Crossroads. Just two years off The Karate Kid, Ralph Macchio stars here as a classical guitar wizard with a blues fetish, which brings him into a mentor-prodigy relationship that hews a little too closely to the earlier film. Granted, the aging harpist played by Joe Seneca isn’t as welcoming of the arrangement as Pat Morita in The Karate Kid, but the dynamic is too similar. There’s also Jami Gertz, who shows up in her customary movie-ruining role as a teenage hitchhiker who joins Macchio and Seneca as they make their way from New York to the heart of blues country in Mississippi. Yet Crossroads is a case of a director conceding to formula while infusing it with something passionate and personal—in this case, a love of blues and its mythos, specifically Robert Johnson’s Faustian bargain with the devil. Macchio and Seneca are playing squarely to type, but they’re a loveable, feisty pair, and all roads lead to a rousing finale where Macchio battles the devil’s chosen guitarist (played by Steve Vai) to free Seneca’s soul. The film’s passion really lies in sequences like that one, and Hill, with help from a Ry Cooder soundtrack, makes them count. 

Add 1989’s Johnny Handsome to the long list of underrated Hill movies, and the top of any list of Mickey Rourke’s screen performances. Both men suffered a series of flops and other setbacks toward the latter half of the ’80s, and this ragged crime drama, which bears the scars of post-production mangling, didn’t bring either man back to prominence. Rourke stars as a professional thief who’s betrayed and mangled in a jewel heist, gets reconstructive surgery while in prison, and tries to take revenge on the lowlifes who wronged him. True to form, Hill plays this pulpy material to the hilt, with instances of terrible violence that were guaranteed to turn off most critics (and audiences) at the time. Yet the noir atmosphere—combined with fine character turns by Morgan Freeman, Forest Whitaker, Lance Henrickson, Ellen Barkin, and others—gives the ideal support to Rourke’s extraordinary physical and psychological transformation from mush-mouthed freak to cool, steely angel of vengeance. 

Hill again turned to noir, among a mishmash of other influences, for 1996’s Last Man Standing, his third Western in four years (following Wild Bill and Geronimo) and perhaps the most conceptually ambitious. Hill took a calculated risk in reworking Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 classic Yojimbo after Sergio Leone did it to smashing success with A Fistful Of Dollars, and the risk doesn’t entirely pay off. Inserting gunman-for-hire Bruce Willis into a Texas ghost town lorded over by two rival bootlegging clans during Prohibition, Hill mixes and matches the hard-boiled narration and attitude of the noir genre with the conventions of a bloodier-than-average Western, and comes out with a real curiosity. To the positive, Willis’ constant alignment with—and betrayal of—the two clans leads to an escalating clusterfuck of terrific shootouts, and Christopher Walken leaves no scenery unchewed as a deranged gangster with a tommy gun. But noir touches like Willis’ somnambulant voiceover narration grind down the momentum when the shooting stops, and the film feels curiously thin in the end, as if Hill didn’t develop it beyond his admittedly clever outline. 

Demerits
With Brewster’s Millions, Hill tried his hand at out-and-out comedy for the first and last time, updating a 1945 screwball premise for Richard Pryor, but packaging it as a family-friendly, PG-rated film that hamstrung both his and Pryor’s filthier sensibilities. Though rarely funny, Pryor is a likeable and often infectious presence as a has-been minor-league pitcher who lucks into a $300 million inheritance from a rich uncle. In order to claim it, he has to spend $30 million in 30 days with no assets to show for it; the uncle intends to teach him a lesson in the moral perils of being a spendthrift, and expects him to despise money by the time his month is over. Save for a bar brawl, there’s little indication of Hill’s touch behind the camera; most of Brewster’s Millions is given over to the fantasy of spending big money fast, and to Pryor frantically throwing his millions around to the mystification of everyone in his inner circle. John Candy acquits himself well as Pryor’s boundlessly enthusiastic catcher and closest friend, but the film starts soft and gets softer, with a bad sentimental streak and dated elements like a cab driver played by Yakov Smirnoff, who gets to say his “What a country!” catchphrase and collect a paycheck for it. 

Say this for 1988’s Red Heat: It may be an embarrassing relic of Hollywood during the Glasnost era, but the opening sequence is an instant classic, pulling off a bust-up in a bathhouse nearly two decades before Eastern Promises. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s work as a straight-arrow Moscow detective owes something to the robotic efficiency of Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Drago in 1985’s Rocky IV, but to the film’s credit, he remains an exemplar of integrity and strength in his hunt for a rogue cocaine dealer. When the chase leads Schwarzenegger all the way to Chicago, where he teams up with a blue-collar yahoo played by James Belushi, Red Heat gets permanently mired in buddy-movie clichés, with Belushi always contributing what sounds like the first one-liner that pops into his head. (Sample banter: When Schwarzenegger talks of going to language school in Kiev, Belushi says, “Oh yeah? That’s like in Chicken Kiev? I had that at my sister’s wedding.”) Hill runs Red Heat through its action paces more than capably—Schwarzenegger has rarely seemed so imposing—but the dopey culture-clash comedy undermines the film at every turn. 

Waiting eight years to reunite Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy, 1990’s Another 48 Hrs. arrived a little too late to be a cash-in, but the biggest problem with Hill’s sequel is that it feels more like a remake, recycling all the same stock elements to lesser effect. This time around, Murphy’s movie-star persona takes him out of his original character, and the disturbing edge is gone from Nolte’s detective, who’s now a milder variety of crusty cop. Here, Nolte relies on Murphy’s con man to save him from a trumped-up manslaughter charge by tracking down an elusive drug kingpin who goes by the name “Ice Man.” Every element of Another 48 Hrs. is generic or expected of buddy action movies of its kind, though Hill stages a prison-bus ambush with brio that’s missing from the rest of the film. It’s a prime example of how not to do a sequel: Everyone goes through the motions, collects on a big payday, and leaves audiences with a pale copy of the original. 

Having invested so much creative energy in the Alien franchise over the years, Hill must have felt entitled to try his own Alien rip-off, but 2000’s moody science-fiction non-thriller Supernova went so awry that he took his name off the credits and used the pseudonym “Thomas Lee.” Francis Ford Coppola was reportedly brought in for a reedit that displeased Hill and led him to remove his name, but the finished product bears so little resemblance to anything Hill had done earlier that it’s hard to identify any signs of his involvement. Much like in Alien, a crew from a non-warship responds to a rescue call on a mining planet and retrieves a man who brings something terrible on board. Led by James Spader, who takes over as the head of an emergency rescue ship, they contend with both a dangerous alien “artifact” and the miserable young twit (Peter Facinelli) who’s responsible for it. In the promising early scenes, Hill aims for brainy science fiction along the lines of 2001: A Space Odyssey, with the gentle-voiced “Sweetie” filling in for HAL 9000. But once Facinelli appears and the baffling “supernova” threat takes over, the film plays like a tedious, high-minded Event Horizon


The Essentials

1. Southern Comfort (1981): Just about any Hill film from 1975 to 1981 could take the top slot, but he ended his early auteur streak with an action-thriller that operates on several levels: as ass-kicking Bayou shoot-’em-up, as a comedy about weekend-warrior yahoos out of their depth, and as a pointed metaphor for the quagmire in Vietnam.  

2. The Driver (1978): The Driver. The Detective. The Woman. Hill’s riff on genre archetypes may sound like an academic exercise, but The Driver is anything but, using the purity of its no-frills aesthetic to keep the action moving at a breakneck pace. The film has no time to spare, even for proper names. 

3. The Warriors (1979): Hill’s most widely recognized film is still one of his best, an ingenious combination of Homeric classicism and a splashy, gaudy, cheerfully tasteless comic-book vision of a gang-riddled New York City. 

4. The Long Riders (1980): Hill’s portrait of the James-Younger gang’s last days is a model of economy: Covering a lot of ground in little time—and featuring a cast teeming with real-life siblings—the film nonetheless gets the job done, with an unforgettable Northfield Minnesota raid sequence and a potent survey of North/South tensions after the Civil War.

5. Undisputed (2002): Heavyweight titans facing off in a maximum-security prison. If that premise doesn’t appeal to you, try another director.

Filed Under: Film

More Primer