Extreme Prejudice has the good bloodlines of a strong action film, especially in its star, Nick Nolte, and director, Walter Hill. They previously teamed on 48 HRS., and Hill brought his slashing style to The Warriors and The Long Riders.
So it’s disappointing to report that Extreme Prejudice goes nowhere, a hopeless mix of divergent plots and themes. For the first hour or so, it almost seems as though two different movies are going on. One movie follows a gang of governmentsponsored ex-soldiers who descend on a Texas border town in a covert mission to put the clamp on a bustling dope trade. The other movie involves Jack Benteen (Nolte), a spitshine Texas Ranger who confronts his boyhood friend Cash Bailey (Powers Boothe), a bad apple who now runs the dope ring through Mexico.
Naturally, these two plots come together, and the film actually becomes more interesting as it proceeds. Benteen’s problem is not only with Bailey, or with the covert group, but also with a girlfriend (Maria Conchita Alonso), Bailey’s former flame.
She keeps telling Benteen she needs to talk things out. He says, “Conversation is not my strong suit,” and you believe him. Also, she may be fed up with the fact that he never seems to remove his 20-gallon cowboy hat.
That may be too much going on already, but there’s even more. Rip Torn turns up, playing Benteen’s tobacco-chewing father figure. He’s an entertaining actor, and he gives the film some much-needed humor (Nolte is absolutely deadpan throughout), but Torn gets blown away early on. Curiously, the film almost immediately forgets him.
Hill doesn’t maneuver the film in any fruitful direction. By itself, either the story of childhood friends gone sour or the high tech CIA boys vs. old-fashioned ranger might have worked; but neither is developed. And Alonso’s role is strictly decoration.
Worse, Hill doesn’t give the movie the jagged, nervy visual snap that he had in The Long Riders and 48 HRS. He winds up the movie by trying to restage the epic shootout from Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, and spills a lot of blood but misses entirely the tragedy and heroism of Peckinpah’s lost men.
Presumably the mishmash quality can be attributed in part to a screenplay that seems to have passed through a lot of different typewriters, including those of John (Red Dawn) Milius and Deric (The Deer Hunter) Washburn. Two other writers are credited, and Nolte and Hill also worked the script over, according to the press notes. No wonder it takes off in so many different directions.
Hill’s fondness for colorful character actors pays off, however. Michael Ironside and Clancy Brown are vivid as a couple of the covert operators, as is William Forsythe, whose cherub-faced psychopath is a more complex characterization than it first appears. Keep an eye on this guy; he could be up for a supporting actor Oscar in a few years, though he may always be too disreputable (he most recently popped up in Raising Arizona as one of the simple minded prisoners).
This is a frustrating movie, because some of its ideas are potent. But its wrong turns are too frequent, and too extreme.
First published in the Herald, April 1987.
Lots of eras criss-crossing here, including the times of Powers Boothe and Maria Conchita Alonso. Apologies to Walter Hill devotees – I’m one myself – but this one should have crackled like hell, and it just didn’t. As for Forsythe, he hasn’t got his Oscar – yet.