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The Essentials: The 5 Best Walter Hill Films

by Oliver Lyttelton
February 1, 2013 11:58 AM
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"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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  • Michael Norman | July 12, 2014 8:10 PMReply

    Hard Times is my all time favorite movie. Glad to see Mr Hill getting the attention he deserves.

  • Xmasevebaby | January 16, 2014 12:46 AMReply

    48 HRS was Walter Hill's best film. With a few modifications, you could literally remake that film scene-for-scene into a great Western. Replace the cars with horses in late 19th Century San Francisco, modify some of the dialogue, and boom would go the dynamite.

  • Jeff | June 16, 2013 10:52 PMReply

    In no particular order.

    48 Hrs
    The Warriors
    Southern Comfort
    Wild Bill
    The Driver

    Geronimo is definitely an honorable mention.

  • Shawn Gordon, writer at | February 12, 2013 2:10 AMReply

    1. The Warriors
    2. Johnny Handsome
    3. The Long Riders
    4. The Driver
    5. Wild Bill
    (tie) Trespass

    Honorable mention: everything except "Brewster's Millions" and "Anther 48HRS." A particular mention should be "Crossroads" because so few people know it or appreciate it.

  • aquarius1271 | February 4, 2013 8:30 AMReply

    I like that Trespass got into this list. I only saw it once during its initial cable TV run back in 93 and I remember having been really impressed by it. The same with The Driver. I only saw it years ago and still have fond memories.

  • 3456 | February 1, 2013 11:45 PMReply

    Though Hill is well known as a director and screenwriter, his crucial contrubutions to screenwriting style are often overlooked. Completely stripped down, "haiku-like," as he put it. Nothing else ever written in the format reads quite like it. Somehow, to me, his style is actually harder/slower to read and less comprehensible than that of slightly more descriptive screenplays-- but it's fascinating. A great counterpoint to the somehow in-vogue contemporary overwritten script

  • yo | February 1, 2013 7:20 PMReply

    what did quentin refrence from the driver?

  • Leonardo | February 1, 2013 3:12 PMReply

    "Extreme Prejudice" and "Last Man Standing" make a great double feature.

  • Kevin | February 1, 2013 1:38 PMReply

    Loved this piece—thank you! I've been a fan of Mr. Hill's work since seeing "The Warriors" in its first release in theaters. One note: in the write-up for "The Warriors," it was Cleon played by Dorsey Wright who was framed for the murder of Cyrus, who was the leader of the Riffs.

  • Ben | February 1, 2013 1:15 PMReply

    I missed Walter Hill. I would take Hill over Quentin Tarantino any day. Almost every contemporary director that directs a tough action/ thriller movie, borrows from Walter- but they cannot touch his unique touch. I am so happy Hill is finally getting more of the love and respect that he should have received decades ago.

  • Fred | February 1, 2013 12:51 PMReply

    Great article and cannot dissent too much with "The Driver" as the #1 pick though I would place Hard Times and The Long Riders higher personally. I always take the opportunity to plug the little-known "Hickey and Boggs" when Hill or 70's crime cinema come up and this will be no exception: His first screenplay was one of the best and is worth seeking out.

  • Arch | February 1, 2013 12:17 PMReply

    Great selection, I'd go with Southern Comfort personally with a shout-out to Johnny Handsome.
    Also check out Matt's recap of a Q&A Hill did recently (and his amazing idea for a potential Southern Comfort remake [not really] ) :
    PS : was just recently amazed to see his name during the opening of ... Take the money and run !

  • James | February 1, 2013 12:16 PMReply

    Extreme Prejudice is pretty awesome, even if he did lift the finale from The Wild Bunch.

  • Crafton | February 1, 2013 12:03 PMReply

    surprised that The Long Riders didn't get an honorable mention.

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