Out of curiosity, I checked to see which director currently holds the record for most films which have been covered in my “Robin s Underrated Gems” column. For a while, Peter Hyams lead the pack with four films, but with this column, it looks like Walter Hill has officially tied him. I’ve probably repeated this point many times already, but even though it’s unlikely that either of these directors will ever win any Oscars, they are both very skilled at what they do and know how to craft genre pieces which l entertain and satisfy their audiences. Walter Hill’s most famous and successful films are The Warriors and 48 HRS. and while he’s made his fair share of duds over his career, he’s also made his fair share of action pictures which are very underappreciated. I’ve already covered The Driver (an obvious inspiration for the acclaimed Drive), Southern Comfort and Red Heat, and you can now add Extreme Prejudice to this list. Now, considering its title, Extreme Prejudice must sound like the most generic action movie possible. And it’s undeniable that this film has a story which has been done thousands of times already. The script for Extreme Prejudice was originally written by John Milius (best known for having co-written Apocalypse Now and directing Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn) in 1976 and was going to be directed by him until he decided to do another project instead. The script would not be produced for over a decade after going through rewrites by Fred Rexer and Deric Washburn. Extreme Prejudice could best be described as a modern-day western as it’s filled with numerous conventions of the genre. Its story really isn’t any more complicated than “good guy and bad guy fight over girl”, but the material is greatly elevated by Walter Hill’s energy and style.
The protagonist is a Texas Ranger named Jack Benteen (Nick Nolte), who presides over a small border town in Texas. Jack is constantly dealing with drug trafficking from Mexico and the big drug baron south of the border is an American named Cash Bailey (Powers Boothe). Jack and Cash actually used to be best friends in high school, but the two obviously went their separate ways. In spite of being on opposite sides of the law, it s apparent the two men still like each other. However, things are complicated by the fact that Jack is in a relationship with Sarita (Maria Conchita Alonso), who happened to be Cash’s girlfriend before she got together with Jack. It’s obvious that Cash still lusts after Sarita, and her rocky relationship with Jack may tempt her to cross the border and hook back up with the far richer drug kingpin. To add an extra complication to this love triangle, a black ops military team shows up in town. Lead by Major Hackett (Michael Ironside), the team (consisting of such actors as Clancy Brown and William Forsythe) is known as the “Zombie Unit” because all the soldiers were presumed killed in action, making it easier for them operate under the radar. They are also after Cash Bailey and plan to rob a local bank where Cash is keeping his money and some secret documents about his business dealings. The Zombie Unit eventually crosses paths with Jack and they decide to join forces to venture down into Mexico on a mission to stop Cash. When Sarita winds up reuniting with Cash, it eventually gets to the point where Jack and Cash literally have themselves a duel to win Sarita’s heart.
See what I mean about this being a modern-day western? It’s important to remember that, with a few rare exceptions like Silverado, the western genre was pretty much dead in the 1980s. If a filmmaker like Walter Hill wanted to tell a western story, their best option was to set it in modern times and disguise it as an action film. The character of Jack Benteen was loosely based on a real-life Texas Ranger named Joaquin Jackson, who is apparently an icon in the profession and one of the closest real-life equivalents to a traditional western hero that you will find in the modern era. However, the moment in the preceding clip where Cash abruptly decides to stop the duel shows that Hill is not afraid to satirize some of the conventions of the genre. There isn’t a moment of subtlety to be found in Extreme Prejudice as it’s often gleefully excessive and over-the-top with its violence and melodrama, but this is clearly a deliberate choice from the director. Walter Hill films have never been known for having strong female characters, and poor Maria Conchita Alonso is saddled with an incredibly thankless role. The movie is almost tongue-in-cheek about how little it thinks of the character of Sarita, who is basically just a pawn in a macho battle between Jack and Cash. You get the sense that both men are less concerned about Sarita’s well-being, and more worried about the fact that they’ll have to kill someone they genuinely like. But while plot and characterization are never a top priority in Walter Hill films, they usually still contain interesting heroes and villains. While Jack may be a hardass, he is completely devoted to upholding the law and doing the right thing, and even though Cash can come across as a lot more likable and charming than Jack, he can also be very violent and frightening. But whatever you think about Hill as a storyteller, you cannot deny that he delivers kickass action scenes.
Extreme Prejudice contains a lot of great action setpieces, including an exciting bank heist sequence and numerous violent shootouts. One of Hill’s first major jobs was writing the screenplay to The Getaway, which was directed by the legendary Sam Peckinpah. Hill wanted to pay tribute to one of his earliest mentors and does so with a dynamite climactic shootout which is an obvious homage to the iconic shootout at the end of The Wild Bunch. While Hill’s style and energy elevates the material, the first-rate cast also gives it a boost. Nick Nolte and Powers Boothe are terrific in their respective roles, taking potentially one-dimensional characters and making them a lot more interesting than they might have been. Sticking a modern-day military unit into this western story is also an ingenious idea, but it doesn’t hurt that the Zombie Unit is made up of such names as Michael Ironside, Clancy Brown and William Forsythe, which pretty much makes Extreme Prejudice a character actor version of The Expendables. The film also contains a scene-stealing supporting turn by Rip Torn as the sheriff in Jack’s town, and the interplay between Nolte and Torn is so entertaining that their two characters might have been able to carry a movie on their own. So what else can really be said about Walter Hill? The director has never had any pretensions about himself and when he’s at the top of his game, he knows how to direct a damn good action film. This past year, Hill finally returned to the genre when he teamed up with Sylvester Stallone to make Bullet in the Head, which will be released shortly and sounds like a semi-remake of John Woo’s The Killer. The movie will be released in a few weeks and while this story has been done many times before, it could still be entertaining. As films like Extreme Prejudice demonstrate, Walter Hill is a director who knows how to take age-old material and milk it for all its worth.