Friday, March 23, 2012

Extreme Prejudice


Film director Walter Hill has had, at times, a frustratingly and wildly uneven career that features stone cold classics (The Warriors) alongside baffling misfires (Crossroads). His main stock and trade is old school tough guy action films and they don’t come anymore badass than the criminally underrated Extreme Prejudice (1987). Based on a story co-written by John Milius (Apocalypse Now) and starring Nick Nolte and Powers Boothe, it was Hill’s two-fisted homage to the films of Sam Peckinpah who he had worked for early on his career as the screenwriter for The Getaway (1972). Like many of Hill’s own action films, Extreme Prejudice is a modern western featuring two uncompromising men at odds with one another.

Six mysterious men show up in El Paso, Texas. Officially listed as dead by the United States government, they are part of an elite top-secret military unit led by the no-nonsense Paul Hackett (Michael Ironside), a D.E.A. agent. We soon meet Texas Ranger Jack Benteen (Nick Nolte), a lawman with the cojones to go into a crowded Mexican bar with a loaded rifle looking for a suspect only to coolly gun him down when the guy pulls a pistol. He teams up with local county sheriff Hank Pearson (Rip Torn), the man who taught him how to be a lawman. It turns out that the suspect was a “poor dirt farmer” running dope for Cash Bailey (Powers Boothe) in order to make ends meet. Cash is the local drug kingpin and a man so tough he lets a scorpion crawl along his hand before crushing it. He and Jack were best friends in high school but now they are on opposite sides of the law. Unbeknownst to Jack, Hackett and his men are intent on busting Cash as well.

Nick Nolte plays one of Hill’s trademark laconic men of action and of few words, like the enigmatic getaway driver in The Driver (1978), Swan in The Warriors (1979) and Tom Cody in Streets of Fire (1984). Jack and Cash are throwbacks to a bygone era. 100 years ago they’d have been gunslingers in the Wild West. Nolte has got the steely determination thing down cold and an innate understanding of Hill’s worldview, embodying it with ease. Like many of the director’s protagonists, Jack doesn’t like to talk about his feelings, not even to his long-suffering girlfriend (Maria Conchita Alonso). He’d rather do something than talk about it. It’s great to see him reunited with Hill after their initial collaboration on 48 Hrs. (1982). In an ideal world, they would be making all kinds of films together with Nolte the De Niro to Hill’s Scorsese, both bringing out the best in each other.

For the role of Jack, Hill wanted someone who was “representative of the tradition of the American West – taciturn, stoical, enduring,” and had Nolte watch a lot of films starring Gary Cooper, Randolph Scott and John Wayne. Nolte wanted to recapture “the demeanor of how those ‘40s characters carried themselves – how they dressed and carried their guns.” In order to play a credible Texas Ranger, the actor asked writer friend Peter Gent (North Dallas Forty) to recommend someone to act as a model for his character. Gent suggested real-life Ranger Joaquin Jackson. He and Nolte went over the screenplay and incorporated more of the type of language Rangers use and their relationship with other law enforcement agencies.

In a precursor to his grinning baddie in Tombstone (1993), Powers Boothe plays a genial antagonist in Extreme Prejudice while also sporting a dapper white suit. Cash sees the drug trade as simply giving the people what they want. Early on, Boothe has a nice scene with Nolte where their two characters meet and Jack warns Cash that if he crosses the border into the U.S. he will bust him and his operation. Unfazed and as cool as they come, Cash says to his old friend, “I got a feeling the next time we run into each other we’re gonna have a killing. Just a feeling.” Think of this scene as the pulpy precursor to the legendary diner scene in Heat (1995) between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino only with two legendary character actors instead. The message in both scenes is the same: the next time Cash and Jack meet, one of them is not going to survive the encounter. For any fan of these two actors, this scene (and their final one at the end of the film) is a lot of fun to watch as these forces of nature square off against each other with Cash being gregarious yet still threatening and Jack all stoic determination. With his portrayal, Boothe has said that he wanted Cash to be “multi-faceted, a fully-rounded human being.” I don’t know if he achieves that exactly, but Cash is certainly more than a mere stock villainous character.

The cast of Extreme Prejudice is populated with an embarrassment of character acting riches. William Forsythe (The Devil’s Rejects) plays a grinning good ol’ boy troublemaker; Michael Ironside (Scanners) is the all-business leader of a group of soldiers; Clancy Brown (Highlander) is one of his reliable henchmen; and Rip Torn plays Jack’s mentor who recognizes what Cash represents: “How it comes around. Right way’s the hardest. Wrong way’s the easiest. Rule of nature, like water seeks the path of least resistance so you get crooked rivers and crooked men.” Well said, sir!

Hill not only indulges in his Peckinpah admiration with some of the film’s themes but more explicitly in how he stages and edits the exciting action sequences complete with slow motion carnage that culminates in the climactic bloodbath between Jack, Hackett and his men and Cash and his private army that evokes the penultimate showdown in The Wild Bunch (1969). This is also evident Hill’s storytelling method as Extreme Prejudice is trimmed of any unnecessary narrative fat. Every scene services the story with refreshing efficiency by someone who knows how to tell a story and tell it well.

At the time, Extreme Prejudice was viewed as Hill’s take on the drug wars and the U.S. government’s handling of it with Jack as his mouthpiece when he tells Hackett at one point, “Bunch of bureaucratic fat asses fluffing their duff. They been sitting on my request for drug information for over a year but it’s classified. They’re afraid somebody or some country’s gonna get their feelings hurt.” Hill clearly sees the government as an impediment rather than a resource to men like Jack who are fighting the war in the trenches, dealing with it on a daily basis. The director said in an interview that he saw the film as a critique of “machismo politics” and of “American military involvement beyond our borders, beyond constitutional means.”

Extreme Prejudice is highly critical of the drug wars but refuses to be preachy about it as is the tendency of films like Traffic (2000). Hill is more interested in depicting the struggles of foot soldiers like Jack and how it affects him personally. It also suggests that the government regards people like Hackett and his men as “just numbers on a bureaucratic desk,” as one character puts it. Jack and Cash are above all that because they don’t care about the system. They work within it when they have to but have their own personal code of honor, which they follow. This highly critical viewpoint may explain why it took 10 years for the film to get made, going through several studios and directors because of its “political ramifications” as Boothe said in an interview.

Extreme Prejudice received a perfunctory theatrical release and was not a commercial success. It received mostly positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “What makes the film good are Hill’s style and the acting.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “If Mr. Hill, whose best films have a genuinely hard-boiled glamour, never intends this as parody, neither is he ever more than a hair away.” The Chicago Tribune’s Dave Kehr wrote, “If characters are caught in a shrinking world that leaves no room for notions as grand as ‘good’ and ‘evil,’ but only a sordid, creeping malignancy that levels everything in its path.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kevin Thomas wrote, “Sensational rather than serious, it is an exploitation picture but one with class: it has style, a point to make that happens to be highly topical and, thankfully, a dry, saving sense of humor.” However, the Washington Post’s Richard Harrington felt that “there are simply too many problems, starting with Hill’s clumsy exposition and clumsier development.” Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen was also critical of “Hill’s calcified, comic-book notion of movie machismo.” Extreme Prejudice has largely been forgotten, even by fans of Hill’s films, but deserves to be rediscovered and recognized as one of his very best efforts.

NOTE: This post was inspired by Sean Gill's own highly entertaining review over at his blog.

7 comments:

  1. You covered this Walter Hill gem so well, J.D. Well done!

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  2. great write up. This is a great film with everything you'd want from the genre. Thanks for bringing some attention to it. I haven't thought of it in years.

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  3. Well J.D.

    You've done it again for me. It's funny Power is in this and you mention Tombstone. It was your review of that film that pushed me to see it and I do believe it may happen again with this film.

    I've really enjoyed a number of Hill films and I particularly love Nolte when he's at his best. This particular period captures the kind of stuff I loved seeing from Nolte.

    I also liked your mention of Traffic, another one I missed, but I hate preachy and Extreme Prejudice sounds much more up my alley.

    Anyway, rediscover it we will. Thank you. Sff.

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  4. So glad to see you take a look at this one; as you know, it's one of my favorites. And, as you say, it's truly an embarrassment of character acting riches– my only question is, where is Hill-fave James Remar? But it doesn't matter, because it doesn't get much better than this. Thanks, J.D.!

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  5. le0pard13:

    Thank you, my friend!


    Brent Allard:

    You are more than welcome. It is definitely one of my fave Walter Hill films and deserves more exposure. It is nearly a forgotten film.


    The Sci-Fi Fanatic:

    Glad to be of service! I think you'll like this film, esp. if you enjoyed Powers Boothe in TOMBSTONE. He is excellent in Hill's film also.

    Count me a big Nolte fan. I hope to take a look at NORTH DALLAS FORTY one of these days. I find him endlessly fascinating.

    I do like TRAFFIC - don't get me wrong, but Hill's approach cuts through all the BS and posturing and just goes for it. Sometimes, that blunt, no-nonsense approach works best.



    Sean Gill:

    Yeah, where is Remar indeed?! Or David Patrick Kelly for that matter? He would've been great in this film. I have to say that your post on this film inspired me to do one of my own. I hadn't thought of this film in ages and your review rekindled my interest in it.

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  6. Ive always liked this film. As a Peace Officer in West Texas, I am familliar with the sights and sounds. The irony of it is punctuated with what was really going on at the time along the Texas/Mexico Border. The same night this movie premiered, a real Mexican Drug Lord, Pablo Acosta was being ambushed by government Agents just south of the Rio Grande.

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  7. David L. Wood:

    Wow, great to hear from you and from your unique perspective. Did you feel that Walter Hill and co. got the details right of how a peace officer operated/acted or did they take a lot of liberties for dramatic effect? I always felt that the way Nolte wore his gun, etc. was pretty authentic.

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