Monday, May 02, 2005
I’ve seen all four of what I’d consider the major works of Sam Peckinpah. Two of them, The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs, are great. On the other hand, I tried to make it through Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia (newly released on DVD) the other day, and by about the halfway point I was ready to saw my own head off. And The Getaway - well, all I can say is that the Alec Baldwin/Kim Basinger remake didn’t do the half-assed original any harm. Some folks like his stuff a lot better than I do, though. Walter Hill loved Bloody Sam so much he made his very own Peckinpah movie, back in 1987: the baroque, blackly hilarious, sweaty, bloody, fucked-up border blast-’em-up Extreme Prejudice, which I watched last night for the first time since catching its theatrical run at 15.
The movie has two main plotlines, which intertwine pretty well. Plot No. 1: Jack Benteen [Nick Nolte] is a Texas Ranger; his best friend from childhood, Cash Bailey [Powers Boothe], is a drug dealer who lives across the Mexican border in Kurtz-ian splendor, strutting among his thuggish banditos in a gleaming white suit and crushing the occasional scorpion in his naked fist, just because he can. (Today’s movies are really missing the ostentatious, context-less displays of macho that substituted for character development in 80s action flicks.) In their constricted, manly way, they both love the same woman, played by Maria Conchita Alonso. Conflict ensues. Plot No. 2: a group of killing-machine veterans, all supposedly dead, travel the world doing the U.S. government’s dirty work, and their latest assignment, they believe, is to take out Cash Bailey, who used to be an informant but who’s turned rogue. (There’s a twist here, but I won’t spoil it, because this movie really is worth a spot on every Netflix queue.) As part of their anti-Bailey efforts, they blow up large sections of Benteen’s home town, which makes him angry. Eventually, though, he travels down to Mexico with them, aiming to get a personal confrontation with Bailey while the soldiers tear the place up.
The supporting cast is sort of an 80s action all-star team. The soldiers are played by, among others, Clancy Brown, William Forsythe, and Michael Ironside. (The guy who played Lamar in Revenge Of The Nerds is in there, too, but if anything, that should be a laudable tribute to his range.) Nolte’s running partner, the local sheriff, is Rip Torn. Cash Bailey’s two main henchmen are “Tiny” Lister and Luis Contreras (you may remember him as a tall, surly supermarket security guard in Repo Man). Forsythe steals most of his scenes, as he so often does (side note: a friend of mine interviewed Forsythe once, and the actor's recollection was that in true Peckinpah spirit, this was the drunkest set he'd ever been on), but this movie really belongs to Powers Boothe.
Boothe’s madness in this movie is brilliant and hilarious. The first time he confronts Nolte in the desert, his white suit shines like the sun. The next time we see him, he’s wearing the same suit, but he’s unshaven and it’s practically pinto-spotted with dirt and sweat. He’s a true sleaze, the centerpiece of Walter Hill’s view of Mexico as a place where no one seemingly could get clean even if they wanted to. Clouds of dust float around greasy, heavily-armed Mexicans, and Boothe lists in the middle of the crowd, tequila bottle in one hand, revolver in the other. His delivery of the sometimes preposterous, other times oddly brilliant dialogue is note-perfect: you never believe he’s anything but an utterly dissipated, depraved scumbag, and yet he’s oddly pitiable even in his psychosis. It’s sort of like he’s channeling his earlier, equally unforgettable work in the 1980 TV movie Guyana Tragedy: The Story Of Jim Jones.
There are a bunch of extremely violent outbursts, including a massive explosion, a bank robbery, and a shotgun-to-the-foot scene that made me wince when I first saw it as a teenager, and did it again this time. But the climactic massacre is where the Wild Bunch comparisons really come into play. Just like the Peckinpah version, there are machine gun nests, blood squibs as far as the eye can see, and bodies tumbling from roof to street in lovely slow motion, all expertly edited so the plot is never lost. At the same time, the duel between Boothe and Nolte over Alonso has an almost Leone-like majesty. This film reveals the extreme difficulty of making a modern-day Western that really works. Walter Hill pulls off what very few other directors could (probably because most wouldn’t even try).
Hill is one of my favorite directors, and I think this might be his best movie. It’s the movie that made me start looking for his name as a factor in whether I’d buy a ticket, or hit the video store, or not. It’s underrated, and too infrequently seen, compared with his better-regarded, better-known movies like 48 Hrs., The Warriors, Southern Comfort or Hard Times, but I think Extreme Prejudice distills everything great about Hill’s cigar-chomping, balls-out approach to filmmaking (and everything he stole from Peckinpah’s few lucid moments). It’s a movie that deserves a reputation beyond folks like me. (And a widescreen DVD release would be nice, too.)