With a creativity-starved movie industry seemingly out to remake every interesting film ever produced before its target audience of 18-24 year-old men was born, it's no surprise that Walter Hill's once-controversial gangland saga, "The Warriors" (1979), has been slated for an update. Sitting in the director's chair for the remake will be master of the slick and stupid, Tony Scott ("Top Gun," "The Fan," "Man on Fire").
Although Hill is surely getting some dough out of the deal, it's a shame one of his most famous films has to be tainted with the "Tony Scott touch." Still, the impending remake is a good excuse to take another look at a couple of films by a director who, at the top of his form, reinvigorated American action cinema.
After breaking into the business as a screenwriter, Walter Hill made his directorial debut with "Hard Times" (1975), a lean, tough story about a loner (Charles Bronson) who becomes a street fighter with the aid of a fast-talking hustler of a manager (James Coburn). Set mainly in New Orleans at the height of the Great Depression, the film is rich with period detail and local atmosphere.
The plot is pretty minimal. Bronson quickly climbs to the top of the illegal fighting racket while reckless gambler Coburn goes deeper into debt in spite of their success. The fighter is ready to leave everything and everybody behind him at any given moment, including his romantic interest in the film (played by Bronson's real-life wife, Jill Ireland). But he comes through when needed most, agreeing to one last fight with his manager's life on the line.
The fight scenes in "Hard Times" are expertly choreographed, though oddly free of blood and bruises until the final match. Yet even with violence at the heart of its story, it's a surprisingly relaxed film, mirroring the macho stoicism of its protagonist. Hill gives the fights their due, but he's more interested in the contrast between quiet tough guy Bronson and glib wheeler-dealer Coburn. Hill maximizes the charisma of his stars and allure of his locations in a modest but winning debut. "Hard Times" is available on a Columbia/Tristar DVD with a proper widescreen transfer but no bonus features aside from the theatrical trailer.
Hill would return to Louisiana six years later, with one of his very best and unjustly overlooked films, "Southern Comfort" (1981). Instead of New Orleans, the setting here is bayou country, where a group of unruly National Guard members are about to find out you don't have to go a world away to find an enemy.
The film is set in 1973, as America was nearing the end of its costly, dispiriting involvement in the Vietnam War. From the moment the small Guard unit begins its latest exercise, the carelessness and arrogance of its members are in evidence. They cut through a fishing net that gets in their way, paying no mind that some family is depending on it for dinner. When an unmapped lake becomes an unexpected obstacle, they decide to borrow some of the locals' canoes to facilitate a shortcut across the water. They leave a note, in English for a Cajun population that rarely uses the language, though soon enough explaining the use of the boats will become a moot point.
When one soldier foolishly fires a round of blanks in the direction of some confused Cajuns, they understandably think they are under attack and fire back. The unit's commanding officer is killed, and a miniature variation on the Vietnam conflict is launched in the southern swamplands of the USA. Lost in unfamiliar terrain, lacking leadership and with more than one unstable member in its ranks, the unit slowly comes apart as soldiers are picked off, one by one, until only two remain to fight for survival.
There are no heroes in "Southern Comfort," though we do root for the sly and cynical Spencer (Keith Carradine) and the cautious and cool Hardin (Powers Boothe) to make it out alive. They are the most dubious about the military culture they have fallen into and the most sensible about handling the combustible personalities around them.
Some have criticized the film for being too literal an allegory of Vietnam, but this isn't a movie to be appreciated remotely as symbolism. It's a visceral experience that takes the viewer into the mud, blood, craziness and desperation along with its characters. The script (by Hill, David Giler and Michael Kane) is rife with ironic social commentary, and there is a kind of grim poetry in some of the dialogue. Along with the sharp performances of Carradine and Boothe, the ensemble cast features such fine character actors as Fred Ward, Peter Coyote, Franklyn Seales and Brion James.
Many have compared "Southern Comfort" to "Deliverance," and it certainly owes a debt of influence to John Boorman's 1972 classic. But at the risk of heresy, I'll say Hill's is the better film. It certainly presents the Cajun people more humanly than the backwoods horror show denizens of "Deliverance" and it challenges the audience with more troubling stand-ins than the generally likable quartet of weekend adventurers in Boorman's film.
MGM's DVD of "Southern Comfort" is a basic package (no extras beyond the trailer), but the quality transfer of the film is more than enough of a draw. Even on the small screen, Hill's stylish direction here can leave you breathless; particularly in a brilliant finale set during a Cajun festival.
It's been a decade since Hill made a movie truly worthy of his talents (the flawed but compelling "Wild Bill"), though he won critical acclaim and an Emmy award for directing the pilot episode of HBO's western series "Deadwood." But in spite of a few misguided projects and a couple of outright duds, his talent is undeniable. Besides the two films covered here, there are several Hill essentials: "The Driver," "The Warriors," "The Long Riders," "48 Hours," "Extreme Prejudice," "Johnny Handsome," "Trespass" and "Geronimo: An American Legend." See them now…don't wait for the remakes.
Films featured in DVDetours™ may be difficult to find at many video stores but are widely available from some of the online rental services, such as Netflix, Green Cine, QwikFliks and Blockbuster Online. Inventories vary from company to company and DVDetours has no connection to any of these services.
© 2005 Joel Wicklund