Friday, August 25, 2017
Walter Hill: What the Hell Happened?
What the hell went wrong with Walter Hill? Was it money? Success? Cocaine? Marriage? Complacency? A combination of all the above? What derailed Hill from the trajectory he was on in the 1970's?
I've got Hill's first film, 1975's Hard Times paused, about twenty minutes into it, as I type this. It's great. It's the one "classic period" Hill I had never seen before, and I'm glad I've finally gotten around to it. Charles Bronson, who can seem so wooden in the wrong hands - or with the wrong material - is sensitive and expressive and in top form (amusingly, people keep remarking in the film that he's too old to be a tough guy, but this film was made near the start of his tough guy career). James Coburn, as a hungry hustler named Speed who makes money promoting back alley streetfights, is a terrific foil, George C. Scott to Bronson's bare-knuckled Eddie Felson. Visually it's reminding me of Aldrich's The Emperor of the North Pole - and is filled with convincing period details, evoking the Great Depression; some of the palette is similar to that employed in the Coen's Barton Fink, a film which surely has the best colours of any Coen brothers movie, with some lovely browns and greens in the flophouse Bronson ends up in (paying $1.50 a week for a room, which he slowly inspects, having forked over the cash: does the fan work? Yep. Does the water work? Yep. He nods, smiles to himself, and you can practically hear the thought in his head, in his voice, delivered as only Bronson could: Looks like I got a good deal). Even Jill Ireland - who, in the wrong hands, or with the wrong material, is often worse than Bronson, and often (as with the near-unwatchable Assassination) in the same film - is also believable, appealing and dignfied; there's a failed diner pickup between them (it really is seeming like The Hustler, but I forgive it) that risks cliche at every turn - or risks inviting you to judge the characters, because Bronson is transparently trying to get laid, and she's transparently curious (but reluctant, since, as we discover, she has a husband in prison: "it ain't easy," she tells us, and we believe her). But rather than lose us, the interaction ends up seeming convincing and appealing, making us want to see the two together again. A lesser film would just leap into bed with them and give us a boring formula lovemaking scene that evoked exactly nothing and made you wonder if there was something wrong with you for not caring. No: Hill gets credit for taking his time with their relationship, for making us believe and care and want to see what happens next. The film is unhurried and quiet in other likeable ways, too, right from the opening shot of a train, which takes in the whole progress of the train from being off screen to coming around the bend to arriving in front of us, when it could have been handled with a single image (Bronson hopping off a boxcar - which he eventually does, but only after several minutes - and credits - have gone by). I suspect Jim Jarmusch cribbed from this beginning for Mystery Train. I haven't finished the film yet but sometimes when I'm really enjoying a movie I am compelled to stop at about this point and enthuse to whoever is in earshot at how good it is; Hard Times - also known as The Streetfighter - is one such film.
So what went wrong? Making a lot of money on 48 Hours might have been the beginning of the end, because as we enter the 1980's, Hill's films start to get a lot cheesier (Streets of Fire has its admirers but I haven't seen it in 30 years so I can't speak to it; people like Mark Prindle and Robin Bougie have been singing its praises on Facebook recently, since the new Blu edition, so I might look at it again, too. If nothing else, the Blasters and Lee Ving are in it, and I have a guilty fondness for the songcraft of Jim Steinman). It is possible Johnny Handsome, Red Heat, and Extreme Prejudice have merits - certainly Trespass (which Netflix Canada put up shortly after Bill Paxton's death) was more watchable now than I found it at the time, but it hasn't compelled me to go back to those others. I do recall that all of these films - which I saw at the time - more or less maintain elements of Hill's aesthetic, including Ry Cooder scores, though they get a little more conventional in terms of the action movie conventions they employ, and a little less determined to take their time and get us interested in their characters. I can only say that I found each of them disappointing when I caught them first-run, so much so that I eventually gave up on Hill altogether, with 1992's Trespass being when I leapt off his train; it remains the last of his films I've seen to completion, though I've revisited his earlier films many times since then. I sometimes get curious about Hill'sYojimbo-Fistfull of Dollars film, Last Man Standing, which seems like it's right up his alley, but I've never heard anyone say much good about it, and while I'm amused that the film returns the Dashiell Hammett template more or less to Hammett's home turf, the problem is that I feel like I can infer every idea in the movie, including a few of Bruce Willis' one liners and facial expressions. Thinking I know what it delivers, I have never actually wanted to give it a shot.
I won't even bother going on about Hill's comic book :ultimate director's cut" version of The Warriors, which is the only one he'll let us see these days - a misguided miss that tinkers with a film a lot of people have great love for, and then says "fuck you" to them by being the only version Hill will license for Blu. I saw it once; it's not awful, actually, but I'll stick with my DVD of his original cut (played that for Erika, too). It was a perfect film as originally made, even if it got misunderstood. I love these films so much that despite plenty of what seem like bad (if maybe money-making) decisions since his golry days, I have this fantasy - it's almost how I feel about the Blue Oyster Cult - that Walter Hill is going to somehow come to his senses, get hungry again, and make a GREAT new movie. I have I very hard time believing that a man with as much talent and promise could end up so uninspiring a figure. In fact, one of the first things I did when we got Netflix set up was to see if any Walter Hill films I'd missed (or wanted to revisit) were on it... Maybe I'd look at Extreme Prejudice again? After all, Powers Boothe is in it...
Nope. There was only one Hill film on Netflix Canada, at the time - before they'd added Trespass. It was the Stallone vehicle A Bullet to the Head. I had heard nothing about it, but I have nothing against Stallone; maybe THIS was a return for form?
Nope. I was able to get through the first ten minutes; when I stopped, it wasn't because I needed to rave about it, and I have no interest in going back. There's nothing of Hill visible, just action movie cliches and annoying hip hoppy music. It could have been made by 25 year old any rock video veteran, as their first film, and maybe would have been more forgivable if it had been.
Hill has directed one film since, 2016's Tomboy, AKA The Assignment, filmed in Vancouver, and while I would generally try not to judge a film I haven't seen, the premise is so strained that it's fuckin' laughable: a hitman wakes up to disover he's undergone gender reassignment against his will and is now Michelle Rodriguez. I kinda love Michelle Rodriguez, and haven't held it against her that I've only really liked one movie she's done (Girlfight). She has a star quality that very few filmmakers have been able to exploit, placing her in supporting roles when she's obviously meant to be carrying the film. It's nice to see her get a lead role for a change, with this movie, and I will look at it if it turns up on Netflix, why not? But critics haven't been kind and I have no reason to think that Hill will pull out of his 25 year tailspin to redeem himself with a film with so ridiculous a hook.
I realize Walter Hill probably has more money, power, and influence than I will ever have, and has no reason to care what some shmo like me thinks. And to hell with me, anyhow; who the fuck do I think I am? Walter Hill has made a handful of fantastic films; I just sit on the couch and have opinions about them. But if there's a more disappointing director out there, a filmmaker I have cared more about at one phase of his career and cared less about later, I haven't seen his work. Even Coppola has supposedly redeemed himself in recent years, not that I have any interest in seeing the results.
I'm going to go back to Hard Times now, and finish lovin' it. If you haven't seen it - it's well worth your time, even if it IS just The Hustler with fistfights. (I mean, Face Off - NOT the John Woo film - is just The Hustler with hockey, and that's a great film, so what the hell).