Without having the fanfare of many of his fellow 1970s alum, Walter Hill is one of the most important and influential filmmakers of all time. He brought a hard nosed style to cinema, a successor to Sam Peckinpah that stripped away some of Sam’s more nihilistic and stylistic flourishes to really elevate pulp to something more poetic.
Hill’s movies are never long. They come in and do their job with utmost efficiency. Characters are defined by who they are. There’s men with strict codes and men who just sow chaos. Violence is pretty much the order of the day. Tough as nails men delivering tough as nails dialogue when needed.
A strong sense of musicality. Hill has laid down some truly classic films, some films that have influenced countless imitators, and some that are hidden gems lost to time. Then there’s the few that are just outright failures, but no real trainwrecks to his name. He always came to play and was able to always imbue a story with his style.
This is the man who was brought on to “Alien” to tone down Dan O’Bannons more “Prometheus” like script into something more manageable and relatable. The man is a legend and with the release of “Undisputed 4” onto home video, it is damn time that we look back at his hefty oeuvre to truly honor the amazing work he has done and even to look at the failures to see what went wrong.
Forewarning, “Supernova” and “Broken Trail” will not appear on this list. “Supernova” because it barely resembles what he sought out to make and he had his name taken off before two other directors took turns on it. “Broken Trail” because, as good as it is, is a miniseries on television and that is a pretty easy way to not be considered a movie.
20. Brewster’s Millions (1985)
A stunning miscalculation from Hill. Wanting to branch out into something other than genre filmmaking isn’t a bad idea, but to do it on such a lifeless and toothless comedy was a horrible idea. Especially doing so with post burn Richard Pryor, who was unfunny in movies as he was funny on stage. It’s a staggeringly unfunny movie.
Not a single part of this movie is fun to watch. You keep waiting for something, anything, to happen. But nope. It’s well shot and well made. But there is nothing to it at all. Just lifeless dreck that is thankfully nothing but a weird blip in the career of Hill, who would thankfully never sink this low again.
19. Wild Bill (1995)
There is no life to this movie at all. Which is an absolute shock, as Hill making a western should elicit something other than a yawn. But it really just never finds its footing.
The story never takes shape and never takes hold, just lurching about until its ending. And even then, there’s nothing emotional at all. The death of Wild Bill is done so poorly that one can’t help but think that Hill had to finish this movie quick without any proper time to rewrite. Especially when you consider that he would go on to tackle much of the same subject matter in the pilot for “Deadwood”, this really can’t help but feel like a first draft for much better things.
Filled with many actors he’s worked with before, nobody really stands out. Even Jeff Bridges can’t make Wild Bill come to life. The scripting doesn’t help, as nobody really gets consistent writing. Although nobody is hard to watch, being that they’re all capable actors. Except for David Arquette that is, who is just horrible here. Just an absolutely astonishing case of miscasting from Hill.
The movie is stuck in this weird limbo where it wants to be a romanticized version of Hickoks life, but also play things kind of gritty. There’s these horribly executed flashbacks in S-VHS quality black and white that is hard on the eyes. It never adds up to anything. Just an absolute shame what this movie ended up being.
18. The Assignment (2017)
The movie that was designed to keep the thinkpiece industry afloat. My goodness is the premise of this so ridiculous and sleazy that it couldn’t help but excite anyone willing to go for the ride. Michelle Rodriguez plays a hitman (key word man) that is forcibly transitioned into being a woman as an act of revenge by a man scientist played by Sigourney Weaver. From there, Rodriguez would seek her own revenge.
Plenty of calls of transphobia was placed upon the movie before it was even seen. But what’s funny is is that the movie goes out of its way to not be transphobic and that there’s nothing wrong with Transsexuality. No, the movie is actually trying to make an interesting point about gender and identity and toxic masculinity. What would happen if a man so caught up in alpha male bullcrap like contract killing was suddenly excised of all the testosterone needed to allow such a crazy life.
Would that person suddenly change? Is our identity tied into our sexuality? It’s an interesting subject to tackle, the idea of the surface identity informing who we are inside. Hill had tackled something similar in “Johnny Handsome” almost 30 years prior. But here the movie is much sloppier and less competent than that one was. The movie is stuck in this weird purgatory.
It’s got the run time and the feel of a DTV action movie, and it has some of those elements, but not enough to be a full blown entry. Yet it also takes its time and wants to be a legit character drama about these interesting/big ideas, but it doesn’t have the run time to do so while balancing the action/crime elements. So what we get is this honestly well intentioned pulp story that is stuck doing too much in too little time, so it just becomes a mess.
It’s not a completely worthless experience though, since Hill shows a little bit of his old verve in some of the crime elements. But it’s those character moments that fall apart, thanks to a really weird experiment. Having Rodriguez play the male version of this character is a decent idea, but executed horribly. The fake facial hair and nose she is given is just distracting and amateurish at best. She doesn’t convincingly play a man, so the transition doesn’t feel as dramatic as it should.
Comments are made about how she’s losing her muscle tone or her physicality has changed. But it hasn’t. It’s a bad choice. They really should have just had a guy play the male version, or get an actual transexual actor to play the role, or something like how “Orange is The New Black” has a transsexual character played by her twin brother in flashbacks.
Something, anything that could have changed the issues that plague the main character portrayal. But there’s just the feeling that this was done too cheaply and too quickly to really allow anything good to come out of it, a genre exercise that failed from the cheaply funded jump. Which is a shame, because the movie is a bit more hopeful than “Johnny Handsome” was. There’s the idea that maybe one can change, whereas Handsome says there’s no chance for such. A damn shame this didn’t work out.
17. Another 48 Hours (1990)
This movie gets way more crap than it really deserves, even though it isn’t an objectively good movie. It’s way too derivative of the original movie and falls into that sequel trap of just being a beat for beat remake with some slight changes. Numerous references to the original doesn’t change that this isn’t that one. Nowhere near as good.
But it has its charms. Nolte and Murphy are good in it. The visuals are good and the action is pretty fun. It just can’t ever get rid of the feeling that this is all completely unnecessary. Which is a shame, because the idea of returning to these two characters isn’t in and of itself a bad idea. Just a shame it was done so cynically, an early look at how “Beverly Hills Cop 3” would turn out (also Walter Hill would have made the first “Beverly Hills Cop” so much better than already is).
16. Red Heat (1988)
Hill would make a buddy cop movie with Arnold. What could go wrong? It would be easy to say the presence of Jim Belushi, but that’s not fair. His presence is more a sign that things are not gonna be great, just not because of him. Cause he tries. He really does. But the movie never comes to life.
Hill just isn’t able to give the movie the spark it needs to be anything other than a bland and lifeless riff on “48 Hours”/“Lethal Weapon”. Arnold plays a Russian cop who comes to Chicago to find a drug dealer and Belushi is the cop that has to partner up with Arnie. Really all that can be said about this movie is that it is lifeless. It isn’t awful, it’s not even bad. It’s just there.
15. Johnny Handsome (1989)
A weirdly spiritual successor to what Hill was trying to do in “The Assignment”, but is done much better here. Not that what we get is some amazing movie, although it’s funny to think of Hill trying to make a crime movie with Rocky Dennis. Because that’s what the movie is. It’s about Mickey Rourke as the dude from “Mask” being given a second chance of looking like a human being and throwing it all away on a quest for revenge.
What Hill is doing here is tackling the idea of what makes us who we are. The idea that the physical does not change the spiritual. Rourke is given a fresh face, but that doesn’t change the hardships he’s had to endure in his life. So when Lance Henriksen and Ellen Barkin take away his best friend, Scott Wilson, Rourke can’t help but seek revenge. The only man who ever treated him like a human being was taken from him by monsters, and he can’t abide that. Even with a new face. Because the damage has been done.
So what we get is more of a character drama than an action movie, until the final third when it goes full blown genre heist movie. A robbery and plenty of murder takes place to make it fit firmly into Hills work. But much like “The Assignment”, it could have benefited from a longer run time. Really build up Rourke and his plight. Let us see more of the life he builds for himself.
So by the time that he seeks his revenge, it has more weight to it. It feels more tragic. And it makes us understand Morgan Freeman’s cop character more in the end. A cop who comes off like a real asshole, but is shown to be a wise man who understands what Rourke had to deal with and what that did to his soul. Hill makes the world easy to understand and believably gritty. The genre trappings work well. It just never rises above decent.