Crossroads

October 8, 2019

crossroadsDirector Walter Hill has been wavering between gritty, realistic films (The Long Riders, 48 HRS.) and outlandish forays into pure stylization (the urban-punk musical-western Streets of Fire). Of course, Hill’s gritty movies are stylized in their own way, and he’s at his best when working with strong storytelling rather than simple metaphor (as in the Vietnam-microcosm mess, Southern Comfort).

In his latest project, Crossroads, Hill indulges both sides of his personality. For the first hour and more of its running time, it’s a wonderfully rendered yarn, a typically American kind of journey told in nifty, authentic language. For its denouement, however, Hill suddenly heads into la-la land, and pulls a bizarre shift into the supernatural.

The plot springs from a terrific idea. A guitar prodigy (Ralph Macchio of The Karate Kid) from Long Island is classically trained but has his heart in the blues. He’ll do anything to track down a mythical lost blues song by Robert Johnson, the great bluesman who was murdered before his 21st birthday after recording an output – 29 songs – that changed the way American music sounded.

Macchio has tracked down a harmonica player (Joe Seneca) who was present for Johnson’s recording sessions. But the bluesman won’t give Macchio the lost song unless Macchio breaks him out of his New York nursing home and takes him back to Mississippi.

They break out, head south and Seneca starts teaching the young greenhorn some ot the rules of the road. He claims the kid is technically gifted but utterly without a sense of the blues, so he needs to throw a few hellhounds on his trail.

The kid gets an education fast. They’re dumped onto Highway 61 without any money, thrown into a mugging at a motel and arrested for sleeping in a barn. Macchio also hooks up with a tough-as-nails hitchhiker (Jami Gertz) and he learns the essential blues lesson about unrequited love.

All of this provides great pleasure. The similarity with The Karate Kid, in which Macchio also learned  wisdom from an old-timer, is unfortunate, but Crossroads creates its own distinct world; Ry Cooder’s music enhances this immeasurably, although I wish there were even more music in the film.

When the travelers reach Mississippi, and a crossroads at which Johnson and Seneca supposedly sold their souls to the Devil for a taste of blues success, the film starts to hint that this supernatural contract is real, and the finale is an update of The Devil and Daniel Webster, with Macchio trying to pick and strum his way out of Seneca’s contract.

Hill’s films are usually about myth-making, so in a way this conclusion is appropriate. But it’s also just plain weird, coming after the down-to-earth realism that has gone before. And the hokiness of the climactic get-down session is sometimes laughable.

The sequence probably wouldn’t seem so bad if the film hadn’t begun so promisingly. As it stands, it is a strange, seemingly misguided ending to a promising, still largely enjoyable film.

First published in the Herald, March 13, 1986

Huh. Well, I was really thinking a lot about Americana around this time, and I may have really wanted a movie like this to work. It all sounds pretty painful from this distance, and I haven’t watched it since. Screenwriter John Fusco subsequently wrote the Young Guns movies and Hidalgo. The movie’s also got Joe Morton, Harry Carey Jr., and Steve Vai. The actor Robert Judd, who plays Scratch (and died in ’86), has exactly one other movie credit: in the incredibly nasty exploitation picture Fight for Your Life (1977).


Extreme Prejudice

October 3, 2019

Extreme-PrejudiceExtreme 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.


Johnny Handsome

August 10, 2012

In Johnny Handsome, Mickey Rourke takes his propensity for disfigurement to a new level. You thought he was ugly in Barfly, or Angel Heart? That was relative comeliness. In Johnny Handsome, Rourke plays a lowlife criminal whose face is unspeakably deformed. He’s so repellent he’s contemptuously known as Johnny Handsome.

When Johnny is double-crossed during a robbery and his best friend killed, he’s packed off to prison, a two-time loser. But then a doctor (Forest Whitaker), a specialist in reconstructive surgery, sees Johnny’s face, and he puts Johnny under the knife to try to make a new man of him. At least he fashions a new, socially acceptable face, but can a new face change the man?

As Johnny Handsome finds out, he must remain true to who he is. The second half of the film shows his revenge against the two sleazeballs who sold him out (deliciously and dementedly played by Ellen Barkin, also on sizzling view these days in Sea of Love, and Lance Henriksen). This part of the movie isn’t quite as intriguing as the character study of the first half, because it’s mostly clockwork action.

But action is the specialty of director Walter Hill (Red Heat), and he can bring this kind of thing off as well as anybody. Hill also glories in the blue-collar New Orleans locations and the tough, epigrammatic dialogue. When Barkin sizes up the new Johnny Handsome—she doesn’t recognize him—she leans in and leers, “I’ll tell you sumpin’, sweetheart: Lookin’ at you gives me some baaad thoughts.”

In the end, Johnny Handsome comes close to being a real thug’s tragedy. It’s got seediness and flavorful characters, including Johnny’s post-makeover girlfriend (Elizabeth McGovern), who isn’t quite the goody-two-shoes she seems to be, and Johnny’s nemesis, a police lieutenant (Morgan Freeman) who is merciless in his harassment of Johnny—or is it merciful?

Rourke does well with his role. The scene in which his bandages come off and he peers into a mirror is one of the best pieces of acting I’ve seen in a movie this year.

Finally the movie and his performance come up short, because there isn’t really enough of Johnny to provide for truly tragic dimensions; he becomes submerged in the revenge story. That story is a pip, nevertheless, and Johnny Handsome is a fascinating brew.

First published in the Herald, September 29, 1989

Still waiting for the Johnny Handsome cult to gather. I guess the film doesn’t quite work, but Hill gets moments like nobody else, and Rourke is pretty remarkable.


Brewster’s Millions

July 3, 2012

Brewster’s Millions has been a reliable commercial property since—well, since near the beginning of the history of movies. The story of a man who must spend a million-dollar inheritance in order to inherit even more has been filmed six times.

It’s natural that the idea would be revived again. The plot is such a sure-fire comedic premise that you can envision any one of the talented comics of today taking the property and scoring with it. Eddie Murphy or Bill Murray or Michael Keaton would all do well by it.

But Richard Pryor got it, and he probably needed it the most. Pryor’s star has been dimming steadily since his concert-film zenith a couple of years ago, and Brewster’s Millions ought to improve his standing.

Times being what they are, the amount of the inheritance has been beefed up considerably. Pryor, as a has-been pitcher for the Hackensack Bulls minor-league baseball team, inherits a fortune from his eccentric great-uncle (Hume Cronyn). The catch: Pryor must spend $30 million in 30 days. If he does it, he’ll inherit the old coot’s entire fortune—about $300 million worth. If he fails, he’ll get zilch.

He can’t give it all away, and he can’t acquire any assets. The money has to be completely gone at the end of the month. Oh, and he can’t tell anybody why he’s spending all this money, either. That means his best friend (John Candy) and his new accountant (knockout Lonette McKee, from The Cotton Club) assume he’s being foolhardy with his wealth.

You can see why the movie’s got a lot of built-in promise. There’s plenty of wish fulfillment at work here: Of course we all want to think about the various ways we’d spend that much dough if—I mean when we win the lottery next week. The film puts Pryor in that position, and delivers some pretty satisfying fantasies.

Pryor pours it on thick: natty clothes, a penthouse hotel suite in downtown Manhattan, well-paying jobs for all his friends. He leads an entourage to a posh restaurant and asks the matire d’ what the most expensive champagne is. “Chateau Lafitte 1961,” the fellow replies, apprehensively. Pryor mulls that over, and turns to the crowd behind him: “Hey, you guys like Lafitte?” Resounding cheer from the crowd—and from the audience, too.

The movie has such a talent bank—including the scriptwriters of Trading Places and Walter Hill, the director of 48 HRS.—that I was expecting more. It’s funny, and Hill moves the film along at a whipcrack rate, but it’s completely without surprises. In fact, the movie is so nonstop, you feel a little wiped out at the end. It would have been nice to pause now and again and get to know the characters a bit more.

It’s going to do good business, and it’s certainly fine to have Pryor back in harness. But for everyone concerned, Brewster’s Millions seems entirely too safe and sane.

First published in the Herald, May 1985

Ah, what to do with Richard Pryor: the studios never really did get a handle on that. But this kind of safe approach really does seem wrong.


Red Heat

July 22, 2011

When he was dreaming up the story for Red Heat, director Walter Hill (visiting the area last week on a publicity tour) says there was just one sticking-point to his story: “Would the American filmgoing public accept an unregenerate Soviet hero?”

Hilll’s problem may have ben solved in the casting of the role, for these days almost anything with Arnold Schwarzenegger is automatically ticketed for public acceptance. The Soviet hero of Red Heat is a Moscow policeman who comes to Chicago in search of a lethal Russian criminal. There he gains the prickly comradeship of a Chicago cop (James Belushi) on the trail of the same man.

The cop-buddy movie is a familiar formula, but Hill consistently finds a way to put a distinctive spin on individual scenes. He begins the film in the Soviet Union with a crisply mounted manhunt, wherein Schwarzenegger pursues his quarry through a coed steambath, a fistfight in the snow, and a seedy Russian bar, where the pursuit climaxes in one of the truly outrageous physical punchlines of recent memory.

When the scene shifts to Chicago, Hill strikes the appropriate balance in the comic collision between Belushi and Schwarzenegger, a few effective action sequences, and some funky fish-out-of-water business for Schwarzenegger, who strides into a rundown hotel and bellows his name—”Danko”—to which the desk clerk replies, “You’re welcome.”

This is topped by Schwarzenegger’s deadpan announcement after he ditches his uniform and dons an ill-fitting blue suit: “I am working undercover.” He still looks every inch (and there are a lot of them, of course) the alien.

Though Red Heat is fundamentally lightweight, and its narrative locomotion occasionally threaten to outstrip the niceties of logic, it is always informed by wit. It’s a return to cruising speed for Hill, whose recent outings have included the curious byways of Brewster’s Millions, Crossroads, and Extreme Prejudice.

Hill says the genesis of Red Heat was his desire to direct Schwarzenegger, which brings some built-in problems. “He’s a little hard to make work, the accent and all. He can’t play from Peoria, or somewhere.” So Hill came up with the Soviet angle, and “We really wrote the script after we had the actors, which is unusual. The iconography of actors is critical,” he says.

Hill has heard Red Heat compared to his biggest hit, 48 HRS. “It resembles 48 HRS. a lot less than a bunch of other movies made in the last three years. 48 HRS. was a very funny movie, as long as you didn’t think it was a comedy.” Exactly the same is true of Red Heat.

What I make of Hill’s movies is that they continue to represent one of the most provocative talents in the American cinema. My favorite Hill film is The Long Riders, arguably the best Western in the lean two decades after The Wild Bunch.

Says Hill, “I don’t think the Western genre is going to make a comeback. And I say that with a sense of regret—underlined. I have a couple of scripts. You got any money?”

First published in the Herald, June 16, 1988

I interviewed Hill in a busy restaurant, but I can’t remember which one. He wore sunglasses during the interview, which a publicist explained had to do with his sensitivity to light. I probably told him I had a poster for The Long Riders hanging in my room. As for Red Heat, I seem to have enjoyed it, although the specifics have gotten hazy and the exchange, “Danko” “You’re welcome,” makes me question my standards.