The Walter Hill Collection: Extreme Prejudice Review
Jack Benteen (Nick Nolte) used to be childhood friends with Cash Bailey (Powers Boothe). Now Jack has become a Texas Ranger while Cash has gone to the other side of the law and runs a drug cartel. Meanwhile, Major Paul Hackett (Michael Ironside) is leading a squad of men, all officially dead, to further his own ends.
Somewhere in the early 80s, Hollywood changed. The failure of Heaven's Gate sounded a death-knell for director-led cinema, and power returned to the studios. Home video was becoming a significant source of ancillary revenue. And also, the success of Star Wars and, before it, Jaws created the template for the popcorn blockbuster, which could be sold to audiences worldwide. Fine films were still made, but many directors who had thrived in the 1970s suffered in the new decade.
In 1982, Walter Hill had a significant hit with 48HRS. He followed it with Streets of Fire, a stylised “rock 'n' roll fable” that wasn't huge at the box office but has a cult following: some of us prefer it to The Warriors. However, at that point, Hill somehow came unstuck. The best thing you can say about 1985's Brewster's Millions, starring the then-hot Richard Pryor, is that Hill should be commended for trying to extend his range. Admittedly I haven't seen it since the mid-Eighties but somehow I doubt it's improved with age. The result was Hill's first complete misfire, and demonstrated that he should steer clear of comedy. Crossroads was a curious film, an update of the Robert Johnson musician-sells-soul-to-Devil legend, starring another star of the time, Ralph Macchio (who had created an impression as The Karate Kid). Ry Cooder's score is the saving grace of a film which bypassed British cinemas altogether and went straight to video. By the end of the decade, Hill was making big-star action vehicles like Red Heat, which were more in the vein of his earlier work but a shadow of it, and at decade's end an entirely unnecessary sequel, Another 48HRS. (I'll be discussing 1989's Johnny Handsome in my sixth and final review of Optimum's box set.)
The action thriller, often veering towards the hard end of a MPAA R rating (which usually translated to an 18 certificate in the UK), was a genre that thrived in the Eighties. You can see why this was: it was well-known by then that the majority of cinemagoers were males in their teens and early twenties, and this was a kind of film that appealed directly to them. Also, as the films were not really dependent on dialogue (or much in the way of acting or character nuance), they were easy to sell to non-English-speaking countries. Many of them were made by Carolco, Extreme Prejudice included.
Extreme Prejudice began as a John Milius script: he and Fred Rexer have story credits, but the screenplay was heavily rewritten and is credited to Deric Washburn and Harry Kleiner. Although there are flashes of Hill's narrative economy – particularly the way he introduces Hackett's squad before the opening credits – the main impression given by Extreme Prejudice is of a slackening of style, and a coarsening. Given the border setting, Hill seems to be channelling Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch: there's what seems to be a direct homage in a scene where Cash crushes a scorpion in his hand. But he seems to have captured Peckinpah's surface characteristics – namely a penchant for blood-spurting violence – without the lyricism and elegiac quality that distinguishes the early film. (And that's something that Hill managed to do very well in The Long Riders.) This is almost certainly the most graphically bloody film Hill has made – and that's saying something – but like the rest of the film it seems gratuitous in a way that his earlier work doesn't.. To be fair, the film is well photographed by Matthew Leonetti and regular Hill editors Freeman Davies, David Holden and Billy Weber do sterling work. However, scoring duties went to Jerry Goldsmith this time: there's nothing wrong with his work here except that it sounds like many other action-movie scores of his, complete with metallic clanking percussion sounds.
Nick Nolte and a permanently designer-stubbled Powers Boothe, who had both worked for Hill before, and Michael Ironside, who hadn't, are all their usual solid presences, but their roles aren't exactly a great stretch for any of them. Maria Conchita Alonso comes off far worse. I've commended earlier Hill films for their tough, non-stereotypical female characters (Streets of Fire is another one, containing some of Amy Madigan's best work), but in the way she is written and directed Alonso embodies some of the worst aspects of female roles in the Eighties. Cuban-born, Venezuelan-raised, Alonso was Hollywood's Latina of choice through much of the decade (along with the Mexican Elpidia Carillo), but rarely found a role worthy of her abilities. In this film, her character is basically a trophy to be exchanged between Jack and Cash and most of her scenes feature her nagging Jack. Worse, there's a leering quality to the way she is filmed: one early scene features her topless for no good reason.
I can see that it's possible to watch Extreme Prejudice as a guilty-pleasure, as an hour and a half of ultraviolent shoot-em-up. Hill's ability to direct an action sequence is certainly in evidence, which is presumably why he was hired. But I expected more from Hill when I saw this at the time, and, watching the film again, I still do.
Extreme Prejudice is reissued by Optimum as part of their six-film Walter Hill Collection. The disc is dual-layered and encoded for Region 2 only. This is an uncut version of the film. On its cinema release, nine seconds were removed of a rat wriggling while impaled on a knife: this has since been restored by the BBFC.
The DVD transfer is in the correct ratio of 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced. It's a good solid transfer that copes well with the gritty, dusty look of Leonetti's exterior work. Colours are strong when they need to be and shadow detail is fine.
Extreme Prejudice had a Dolby Stereo track in cinemas, which is the source of the DVD's 2.0 mix, which plays as Dolby Surround in ProLogic. Surrounds are used for music and several explosions. This being an Eighties action movie, bullets and their impacts are heavily amplified. Unfortunately Optimum have not provided any subtitles.
This is the only disc in the box set with any extras apart from a trailer, and not least any new content. The trailer is certainly there, in 4:3 and running 2:10, selling a straight down the line action movie: they knew how to sell those in 1987. Also on the disc is a featurette from the film's original release, with interviews with Hill and Nolte. This is in 4:3, running 6:54, and appears to have been transferred from a NTSC source, as there is noticeable ghosting and other artefacts.
The new content is an interview with Hill, which is 16:9 anamorphic and runs 39:16. It takes the form of onscreen text questions followed by Hill's answers. This is a very good interview, going into some depth about Hill's influences and working methods, and in his answers Hill comes over as intelligent and thoughtful.
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