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The Essentials: The 5 Best Walter Hill Films

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist February 1, 2013 at 11:58AM

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.
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Walter Hill

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
"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
"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.

This article is related to: Features, Walter Hill, Bullet To The Head


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