Walter Hill’s Extreme Prejudice Turns 30 (Going on 60)

On more than one occasion, it has been my duty to inform some poor/lucky soul — poor in the sense that they have gone their whole life unaware of the blessing I am about to bestow upon them; lucky in that they are about to be receive The Good News — of the existence of Walter Hill’s Extreme Prejudice.

Such occasions usually come about during discussions of the best action movies of, if not all time, then at least the 1980s, which makes their lack of awareness of the film even more egregious. In order to convince them of their need to rectify this glaring omission as soon as possible, I generally avoid describing the plot of the film, and give them the following description:

“At one point during the film Nick Nolte and Powers Boothe call a mutual time out on a ten-pace draw they’re engaged in against one another in order to team up to kill half of Mexico, all while Clancy Brown and Michael Ironside are running around at the same time trying to murder one another. Also, Rip Torn is in it.”

That usually convinces them.

Extreme Prejudice came out 30 years ago, to middling-to-positive reviews and poor box office. It’s no surprise that it would get swallowed up in the glut of over-the-top action films of its day, especially as it takes a more melancholy and reserved approach to its action when (and only when) compared to most of the sweaty, bombastic Arnold/Sly outings of the same period. What has never made much sense, though, is how the film continues to be overlooked all these years later, especially considering the cult that has sprung up around so many of its individual players.

Set on the Texas-Mexico border, Extreme Prejudice sees two former childhood best friends and Vietnam vets set on a collision course that can end only when one or both of them are dead. Nick Nolte plays Jack Benteen, a Texas Ranger so morally upright and straight that he seems ready to snap in half if touched by the lightest breeze. The only thing he hates more than the drugs destroying his community is the very notion of having to talk about his feelings. To say that real-life wild man Nolte is playing against type doesn’t quite do his stone-faced turn justice.

Powers Boothe, meanwhile, playing the brilliantly named Cash Bailey. Outfitted in a garish white cowboy suit, Boothe luxuriates in the sleazy, sweaty menace that’s made him one of the best and most sought-after bad guy actors of our, or any, time. A former good ol’ boy who crossed the border and made his fortune as a Narco kingpin, we first meet Cash as he nonchalantly crushes a live scorpion in his fist.

The setup is exceedingly simple: Cash is flooding his hometown with drugs from across the border. Jack is tasked with stopping him. Neither man wants to be the one to put the other down, but as the bodies continue to pile up around them, they are left with increasingly few alternatives. Also, they’re both in love with the same sultry Mexican nightclub singer (Maria Conchita Alanso, of The Running Man and Predator 2 fame). Stories don’t come much simpler than this.

But here’s the thing: that’s only one of the movies that is Extreme Prejudice. Because while Cash and Jack are playing out their black-hat/white-hat Western-cum-neo-noir, there is an entire other film taking place off to the side. A group of black-op mercenaries (so black-op that each has been declared officially dead by the government, in order to give them total deniability) has come to Jack’s border town to pull off a daring daylight bank robbery, the reasoning behind which most of them are not even sure.

What transpires is The A-Team by way of The Wild Bunch. Michael Ironside leads the so-called “zombie unit,” alongside Clancy Brown as his skeptical second-in-command and a young, chubby, William Forsythe as a redneck demolitions expert whose loud mouth and slovenly ways conceal a keen intellect and deep moral conscience. Three other soldiers (Matt Mulhern, Dan Tullis, and Larry B. Scott — yes, Lamar from Revenge of the Nerds) round out the squadron.

These two stories run the majority of the film parallel to one another, connecting only tangentially in the second act, and not truly coming together until the explosive finale. This can result in a bit of a whiplash effect, especially as the big revelation as to how the two stories fit together doesn’t make a great deal of sense (according to Michael Ironside, there was roughly 45 minutes of material that revolved around his character left on the cutting-room floor). But none of this takes away from the film’s immense charm. Watching these B- and C-list icons (as well as once-and-future World’s Sexiest Man Alive Nick Nolte) bond and bicker and betray and blast at one another under the taciturn, two-fisted direction of Hill has all of the charm and gravitas missing from the winking, lifeless Expendables franchise.

That’s because Hill is a master storyteller. He imbues the film with enough humor to leaven the stoicism, and just enough existential despair to make palpable the machismo on display. If the movie wades a bit in the waters of Reagan-era anti-drug hysteria, it also scoffs at the notion of “Morning in America” and takes a deep dive into the well of post-Vietnam, post-Watergate anger that was still lingering.

Although Extreme Prejudice is neither Hill’s most well-known film (that would be The Warriors), nor his most critically acclaimed (The Driver), it might be the one which best represents him and his place in American cinema.

Based on an original script by the “Zen fascist” himself, John Milius (whose screenplay was heavily rewritten, but whose blood-soaked fingerprints remain all over the finished film), and with several homages to Sam Peckinpah (in many ways, Extreme Prejudice plays like a CliffsNotes version of The Wild Bunch, just updated so that the horses are replaced by trucks), the film sits nicely between the gritty nihilism of the previous decade and the fast-paced slickness of the Bruckheimer era that was on the ascent. The same might be said of Hill himself. He was the bridge between guys like Peckinpah and Michael Mann, even as he continues to influence many of the major filmmakers of today, from Quentin Tarantino to Nicolas Winding Refn to Edgar Wright.

Walter Hill with Sylvester Stallone on “Bullet to the Head.”

Starting out as a production assistant on the likes of Bullitt, Hill went on to have an incredibly fruitful career. His first two scripts, Hickey & Boggs and The Getaway, were turned into great genre outings before he turned to directing and producing. His filmography as director, from his 1975 debut Hard Times up to 2002’s Undisputed, is one of the great runs in American cinematic history, a treasure trove of cult classics (The Warriors, The Driver, Streets of Fire), mainstream hits (48 Hrs., Brewster’s Millions), and underseen gems ripe for rediscovery (Southern Comfort, The Long Riders, Trespass, and, obviously, Extreme Prejudice). There are very few misfires (Another 48 Hrs., Red Heat, and the uneven Wild Bill and Undisputed) and only one outright disaster (2000’s Supernova, for which he went uncredited after egregious studio interference). Along the way, Hill produced the Alien franchise (you can see his influence in the blue-collar feel of the first two films) and directed the pilot for HBO’s Deadwood. He even got to see The Warriors turned into a popular video game (an honor that few others ’70s films can lay claim to, putting it in the company of Star Wars and The Godfather).

The sheer depth of his legacy makes the debacle of his newest film, The Assignment, all the more unfortunate. Most of the controversy surrounding the film involves its plot and casting: Michelle Rodriguez plays a male assassin who is kidnapped and given an involuntary sex-change operation, then embarks on a saga of revenge as a woman. The film’s lurid premise would have made it fit right in with Hill’s oeuvre during any other point in time (Hill told a similar story, and told it better, with 1989’s Johnny Handsome), but it couldn’t have picked a less welcoming political and cultural climate to premiere in. Which is not to dismiss the criticisms of the film’s plot, but only to recognize that movies are of their moment, and The Assignment came about a few decades too late.

But even focusing on the film’s “problematic” nature gives the it too much credit. Talky, muggy, cheap-looking, overly stylized, drowning in pretensions of profundity and weighed down by non-stop exposition, The Assignment is the antithesis of everything that makes Hill’s films — in particular Extreme Prejudice — so enjoyable.

Extreme Prejudice doesn’t need to do a lot of talking to say what it came to say. It lets the action do most of the talking, which is what any action film worth its weight in gunpowder should do.

So let’s ignore Walter Hill’s recent misfire and instead focus on Extreme Prejudice, an action masterpiece that deserves far more recognition than it currently enjoys. On its 30th anniversary, we should raise a glass of tequila to this blood-soaked action classic and give it a hearty salud!

Zach Vasquez lives in Los Angeles with mild prejudice.

Zach Vasquez lives and writes in Los Angeles. His critical work focuses on film and literature. He writes fiction as well.

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