Extreme Prejudice (1987)
Director: Walter Hill
Screenplay: Deric Washburn, Harry Kleiner (from a story by John Milus, Fred Rexer)
Walter Hill’s filmography in the early-to-mid 80’s can be seen as a bit of a mish-mash of various genres; from the western “The Long Riders“(1980), cajun survival-actioner “Southern Comfort“(1981), massive box-office hit – the buddy-action comedy “48 Hrs.“(1982), rock’n’ roll-fable “Streets of Fire“(1984), a Richard Pryor-comedy(?) “Brewster’s Millions“(1985) and a coming-of-age music drama “Crossroads“(1986). The last two on that list especially were some pretty remarkable attempts from Hill to try and work in a completely different genre. “Brewster’s Millions” was a box-office hit(Pryor was still a massive star at that time), but “Crossroads” tanked at the box-office.
It was probably due time to go back to basics, back to what Hill was most familiar with; Western-styled action. “Extreme Prejudice” was a story that John Milius was originally developing in 1976 for himself to direct. He described it (at the time) as “very complicated…a modern-day story about subversion and espionage.” The project never made it to the filming stage, though, and Milius ended up directing “Big Wednesday” instead. Decade later, Hill resurrected the project with screenwriter Harry Kleiner (who he had met while being an assistant director on “Bullitt“), molding it more closer to his own sensibilities. The project also got a major backer in Mario Kassar & Andy Vajna’s Carolco Pictures, which was on a major rise because of the huge success of the Sylvester Stallone-starring “First Blood” and it’s sequel “Rambo: First Blood Part II“. (The rise and fall of Carolco might actually be a good subject for an article for someone to write one of these days, but that another story)
Sheriff Hank Pearson: Morning.
Jack Benteen: [snaps] What’s good about it!?
Sheriff Hank Pearson: Well hell, I said “morning.” I didn’t say “good morning.”
Texas Ranger Jack Benteen(Nick Nolte), working from the office of Sheriff Hank Pearson(Rip Torn), is trying to keep his little Texas border town clean from drugs. These drugs are supplied from south of the border by a notorious drug kingpin Cash Bailey(Powers Boothe). Complicating things, Jack and Cash are also old friends, known each other since childhood and finally ended up in the opposite sides of the law – and on opposite sides of the border river, too. Complicating things even more, Jack is also living with Sarita(Maria Conchita Alonso) – a club singer and a former girlfriend of Cash’s. The tensions between the two men are slowly building up – as is the body count in the town – and as Jack keeps ignoring Cash’s constant attempts of bribery, the two men have come to the conclusion that the next time they will come head-to-head “there will probably be a killing“.
Sheriff Hank Pearson: You ain’t just gonna walk in there, are ya’?
Jack Benteen: Oh, hell, I’ve known Chub since the third grade. You were just telling me what a nice kid he used to be.
I’m just gonna go in there and have a beer with him.
Sheriff Hank Pearson: Shit, sounds reasonable. Just sit down, talk to him about how you shot his brother night before last.
Meanwhile, a top-secret military unit – “Zombie Unit” – composed of highly-skilled soldiers who are all reported Killed in Action to maintain their cover-story, arrives to town. The unit is led by Major Paul Hackett(Michael Ironside) and consists of Master Sergeant Larry McRose(Clancy Brown), Sergeant Buckman Atwater(William Forsythe), Staff Sergeant Declan Coker(Matt Mulhern), Sergeant Luther Fry(Dan Tullis Jr.) and Sergeant Charles Biddle(Larry B. Scott). The unit is in town on a DEA-sanctioned covert mission to retrieve evidence of Bailey’s operations and bring him in – or terminate him. As it turns out, Cash WAS on the right side of the law once upon a time; he was a highly-regarded DEA informant who finally decided to go dark and used his contacts to create his drug empire.
As the Zombie Unit orchestrates a big daytime heist in the local bank as they attempt to get whatever is inside Cash’s safety deposit box, some of the team get caught by Benteen, who is hell-bent on revenge after his friend Sheriff Pearson has been killed by some of Cash’s thugs and Sarita has ran across the border with Cash. Benteen and the Zombie Unit make an alliance and all the men travel to the Mexican town where Bailey’s heavily fortified hacienda, guarded by a small army, is located. There will probably be a killing…or few.
Jack Benteen: Once I see that Sarita’s okay, we’ll settle up.
Cash Bailey: Why sure, that’s only fair. What the hell.
You think I want you worried about her when you ought to be concentratin’ on killing me?
“Extreme Prejudice” is a strange and quite often overlooked film in Hill’s filmography. It’s a genuine hybrid; on the other hand it’s a full-on Peckinpahian western, set on the border of Texas and Mexico, with your usual yin/yang hero and villain. But then again, it also brings in the element of a “Men on a Mission“-picture, with the sort of a dirty half-dozen of trained soldiers who operate under the radar and above the law. I mean – their introductory scene in the beginning of the film could very well be from “A-Team” – which I don’t think is accidental; it’s very likely Hill just paying homage to that show and acknowledging his debt to it here. So if one would try to make a one-sentence pitch of this film, it would be “The A-Team enters a Peckinpah-Western with a slice of ‘Walker: Texas Ranger’ added on the side.” I know it sounds pretty crazy when read like that, but it actually ends up working pretty damn well.
Cash Bailey: Oh, Jack boy, you’ve no idea how good it is to see you! These people here, I’m telling you, they can’t follow old Cash in a verbal sphere at all. When I’m flying, son, it is solo. And you know that feeling when you’re talking along and you pause for a minute, maybe freshen your bourbon, do up the fly or something, you look around real careful and you know in your heart it’s all just wasted.
Ain’t nobody understands where you’re at, all your private jokes and subtle conversations just sailing right past them.
Jack Benteen: You know me, Cash. I keep the conversation simple.
Cash Bailey: [laughs] The hell you do, Jack.
I think it was kinda destined, that Walter Hill and John Milius crossed paths at some point. Hill’s flair for portrayals of Manly Men doing tough-guy talk and doing manly man-stuff is kinda very close to Milius’ way of portraying his heroes as Nietchzean Uber-men and focusing on their macho rituals. And make no mistake: even though Milius only gets a story-credit in this film, his fingerprints are all over the story. From the high-tech weaponry and reconnaisansce-gear of the Zombie Unit to Rip Torn’s Sheriff Pearson spouting all kinds of right-wing dialogue. And even Cash’s introductory scene of him holding a scorpion in his hand before squeezing it into his fist. It’s all pure Milius. And of course Milius worked with Hill again when he wrote the script for Hill’s “Geronimo: An american Legend“, 6 years later.
Maj. Paul Hackett: [offering bottle] Scotch, single malt.
Jack Benteen: [waving it off] No thank you.
Maj. Paul Hackett: What, you don’t drink whiskey?
Jack Benteen: I’m particular who I drink with.
Maj. Paul Hackett: I don’t believe that, Benteen. I think you’re just naturally hostile.
Now – I’ve mentioned Peckinpah a few times in this article already… Hill of course worked with him before, writing the script for “The Getaway“, and as I said in an earlier article – the mid-act bank robbery and following mayhem-sequence in “The Long Riders” was pretty obviously homage-ing the opening sequence of “The Wild Bunch“. But in this film, Hill – in his own words – “tipped his hat to Sam a little bit” on several occasions. Let’s start with Nick Nolte’s character: his tall, thin(Nolte has shed a LOT of weight compared to his earlier Hill-film, “48 Hrs.”) frame with the pencil-thin mustache is almost like a spitting image of William Holden’s Pike Bishop from “The Wild Bunch“(although Nolte said that the character is largely based in a real-life Texas Ranger named Joaquin Jackson). Secondly, the bank heist-scene and the “creating a diversion via a huge explosion” is pretty much lifted from the horse track-heist in “The Getaway“. And finally, the last battle-scene at Bailey’s Mexican hideout is pretty much a modernized version of the final action sequence in the end of “The Wild Bunch” – all the way down to quite a few similar angles and shots and of course a few team-members mowing down an ungodly amount of mexican banditos with large caliber machine-guns.
And the sequence is not just filmed and edited in a similar manner; the production design, the casting of extras, their clothing… It’s almost as if when the guys traveled over the border, they also traveled back in time – into the times of when Peckinpah’s film was set. It you took out the modern clothes and the modern weapons, the two sequences from the two films could almost be cut from the same mold. This is pretty much the last time that Hill pays this clear an homage to Bloody Sam, so I guess he wanted to go all-out on this one.
Sgt. Buck Atwater: You know what I think, man? I think we’re heroes and heroes need a cause, man.
Only nowadays everything’s so damn messed up. Ain’t nobody can see anything clear anymore.
So I support my country, man, that’s what I got. I got my country and I got my buddies and that’s it.
I don’t ask no questions.
Jerry Goldsmith scored the film – with Hill’s regular contributor Ry Cooder writing the songs(of which Alonso really sings a few) – and at this point in his career Goldsmith was using a LOT of electronics in his scores(such as “Rambo: First Blood Part II”, “Explorers” and “Runaway”) and from what I’ve read, the film score enthusiasts do not hold these works in such high regard. I say: bullshit. I’m known to be a massive fan of the 80’s synth sound – and I think the music in this film happens to kick some serious ass. Why should all the Westerns be scored with horns and guitars alone? And you DO get those in this film too – the musical approach is just a tad more quirkier.
The cast in the film is almost like a “who-is-who” of character actors who are best known from doing action films. Nolte is stern as hell as the hero, Boothe is brilliant as the unpredictable and impulsive villain – and with his white suit and constant coke-snorting, Cash is very clearly trying to model himself as a kind of south-of-the-border Tony Montana. Who knows: maybe watching “Scarface” made Cash finally take that final step and go bad? Michael Ironside is all steely-eyed and business-like as he always is. I think the standouts in the military unit are Clancy Brown(just coming off “Highlander”) who is kind of the voice of reason in the team and William Forsythe who is kinda the “mad dog” of the team, but each and every team-member gets his chance to shine. If there is a minor quabble in the film, it’s Alonso’s Sarita – whose motivations and allegiances kind of jump all over the place. That might be due to just the screenwriters forgetting to flesh out her part, or the fact that she’s kind of squeezed in the middle of this otherwise all male-cast that’s out-acting each other and oozing testosterone through the screen almost. But it also may be due to cuts; I understand that Hill – once again – edited this film from an inch of it’s life after a few previews and several sequences and subplots got cut out in the process; among them a funeral scene for Rip Torn’s character of which there are still images online and also a completely filmed part from Andrew Robinson, who played a contact/handler of Major Hackett. Who knows.
“Extreme Prejudice” is as pure a product of the 80’s as there ever was. Hill and his usual crew have crafted a high-octane piece of entertainment, that takes it’s two very opposite style of genres and blends them together into a highly entertaining and – at times – gleefully bizarre mix, that’s got a bit of everything for everyone.
They don’t make ’em like they used to.
“Can You Dig It?!!?” will return.