7. Hard Times (1975)
The debut film from Hill that would start it all. And what a way to start it off, but with a depression era bare knuckle boxing movie starring Charles Bronson. For a man who would make a career on movies with tough as nails main characters, starting off with Bronson is a pretty good indication of who you are as a filmmaker.
The movie is far from perfect but it has enough badass awesomeness in it that you can’t go wrong. What also shows up is Hill’s recurring theme of a man with a code in a world without, most specifically here in the presence of James Coburn as a gambling addicted fight manager. Coburn has no code, no honor. But in the low level world of criminals running these fights, he’s a saint. So while Bronson is hesitant to put himself on the line for him, his honorable nature is what puts him into the toughest fight of his life. And for a debut, the fight scenes are pretty well done.
Now it has to be said that many movies in this day and age really don’t have great fight scenes, because there was no real use of professional fight choreographers or stunt men that could do these things. So it’s a lot of Bronson and company just throwing some punches about with a kick or two here and there. Hill shoots it to make it impactful, but it really doesn’t stand up to the test of time as well as his action work in his follow up movies in the 70s, “The Driver” and “The Warriors”.
Already in his debut, he showed his panache for genre storytelling and world building by thrusting us into a time and place with ease. It feels lived in and makes sense, never leaving us to question the veracity of the story even though it definitely is in a heightened world. As a debut feature, you could do much worse. Tough as nails cinema from one of the best to do it, here is the rosetta stone of his entire career.
6. 48 Hours (1982)
For a man not known for his comedic talents, Walter Hill is responsible for sending Eddie Murphy onto his path for superstardom. Yet again, Hill would change cinema. Because it is inarguable that Eddie Murphy was the biggest comedian of the 80’s. And it all stems from this movie, Eddie’s first big break outside of his SNL stardom, and it wasn’t a straight ahead comedy. It’s got its funny moments, but it’s more of an action infused crime flick. With Hill at the helm, this movie is gritty as hell and emblematic of the time.
Nolte starts as a cop that is pretty much a lone wolf asshole that no one likes. He breaks the rules and makes things harder for everyone around him. He has a girlfriend that he doesn’t treat right. And when Murphy is introduced into the movie, a real asshole racist streak comes out of him that is kinda ugly. A movie like this couldn’t be made today, as it doesn’t fully exonerate Nolte’s actions but gives him enough leeway to make him soften just a little bit by the end. Even though the end has him straight up execute the bad guy in a back alley, another great job by James Remar in a Hill movie.
The movie is self aware enough to know that Nolte isn’t a great guy. He’s never idolized or painted as a hero. He’s just the guy that is there at the moment, enough of a belligerent jerk to close the case. And while “Lethal Weapon” is credited for kickstarting the buddy cop genre, this is the biggest progenitor to that one. Similar in a vein to how “Black Christmas” came before “Halloween”. The movie is a solid crime flick with enough tough as nails elements and Hills fantastic storytelling in addition to Nolte/Murphys great performances to elevate it to something truly special.
5. Extreme Prejudice (1987)
It is an absolute god damn shame that this movie is not as well known and loved as it should be. This is a day and age of boutique home video companies like Shout Factory and Arrow Video resurrecting hidden gems like this, and they need to do the deluxe treatment thing with this one to get the word out. Because this is a movie that is so completely Hill that it is a shock to the system to unearth it for the first time.
How could this be a hidden gem? Is it too obvious a Hill after a few years away from straight gritty action? Was it too mean and violent for mainstream audiences in the 80s that were raised on Bruckheimer action? Maybe it’s such an oddly structured movie that feels like two movies in one, as if Hill decided to make a Rambo/Elmore Leonard mashup as directed by Peckinpah? Whatever the reason, this is a great god damn movie. And it may have the best cast Hill has ever thrown together. Nolte, Boothe, Brown, Ironside, Forsythe, Alonzo, and Rip Torn.
What the hell? This cast is great and they’re great in it. What follows is, thanks to a story by John Milius, is another movie from Hill that looks Vietnam. Although this is more a look at the effects of the war and not a parable like “Southern Comfort”. For Nolte and Boothe are old friends since youth who have been thrown onto opposite sides of the judicial system, with Nolte as a Texas Ranger and Booth as a drug kingpin.
It’s intimated that this is due to their service in Nam and how they were effected by it. Nolte became the traditional small town cop, all grit and grimaces that is all action and no emotion. He can’t speak what he feels. He is so strict with rules because rules is what separates us from the animals. Boothe on the other hand became a nihilist.
Looking for any action he can, breaking the rules because what he saw showed him that there are no rules. They are at odds, but they keep giving each other the option to stop their ways. They want a return to their youths where everything was simple and there was no worries. But that’s not how it is, with neither unable to change who they are. Nolte can’t let the drug dealing slide and Boothe can’t give up his chaotic ways.
There’s also the girl that is split between them, Alonzo, essentially the last remaining element that is keeping them fully human. But while there’s also this going on, we’re following a black ops team as they are planning something. This isn’t entirely clear, making us really pay attention to the plot until it is fully revealed when both plot lines converge. And when they converge, the movie becomes fully a Peckinpah movie, as it ends almost exactly like “The Wild Bunch”. Only this has the added benefit of ending in a traditional duel that is filled with personal backstory and tragedy.
The movie is gritty and badass, action packed with masterful filmmaking by Hill, filled with amazing performance, and has more on its mind that a simple shoot em up. One can only hope that this movie gets a second life on blu ray someday soon, because it’s a shame to have to watch this movie on an unimpressive DVD. One can tell that it’s a good looking movie, but the only ways to watch it doesn’t really show that off.
4. Southern Comfort (1981)
Hill decided to do his take on a man vs nature story in a manner similar to “Deliverance” with this one. A man vs nature combined with man vs man narrative. But this time out it’s a much more genre infused affair, with men that are more capable of defending themselves but are also more responsible for their own doom. Hill would take this narrative down a road that many other movies in the 80s would take, which is making a movie that is a parable for the Vietnam War.
A bunch of American soldiers wander into a land filled to the brim with green (a swamp instead of the jungle in this) set off a conflict based on a misunderstanding that leads to too many deaths in an unnecessary conflict. What makes this a movie that is better than “Deliverance” is the conflict bubbles up more naturally then the one in “Deliverance”.
Whereas that just pops up because of the thematic need to pit the city folk against the small town populace in a fight over gentrification, this happens because of the gung ho soldiers playing a trick against those in the swamp that leads to a bloody conflict based on incomplete information.
There’s also no gratuitous rape scene here, which already leads it into much less icky territory, making similar enough points in a much more accessible but still tense way. As usual with Hill, the cast is just great. B movie awesomeness smashed together to make such a testosterone filled thrill ride.
Hill’s mastery of action and tension is utilized to full effect here, getting as close to horror as Hill would ever go outside of his dalliance with the Alien franchise. Watching him in his earliest incarnations of his love affair with gritty southern tales of masculinity is a treat, his hunger and skills crafting something out of elements from the past that manage to become its own thing.
3. Streets of Fire (1984)
This may not be the most “objectively” well executed movie in Hill’s oeuvre, but there is magic in it. Magic that can’t be exactly replicated nor even explained really. It’s one of those things that is just inherent in cinema, where the stars can align and the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts.
This movie is more in line with “The Warriors” than “The Driver”, a heightened reality that has grittiness to it but a sense of movie magic that firmly places it outside our reality. The movie starts off with the tag “A Rock N Roll Fable”. It’s not hiding its intentions. It’s an old school rolled into a new school packaging tale of unrequited love, thrown together in a genre picture that plays close to Hills version of “West Side Story” smashed together with “The Warriors”.
Music is an important part of the movie, more so than any other movie in Hills already musical filmography, but it’s never played like a traditional musical. All the music is diegetic. So there’s always live music playing, with all the characters moving in and out of various low level music establishments. So we got the typical Ry Cooder country stuff mixed in with some soul music thrown together with some Meat Loaf styled rock ballads.
The visuals are damn near unmatched in Hills work, the obvious studio lot sets adding to the heightened unreality of the story and allowing Hill to set the movie in his own version of old Hollywood. The cast is all great, even with one of them really kind of not being great. Michael Pare is the weak link in the cast by a country mile, his understudy to James Remar schtick feeling less vital then everyone else. But it works here, as the mixture of styles and tones allows his grunting heart of gold to fit in.
Diane Lane is a firecracker as the love he’s chasing down in yet another Odyssey like quest into enemy territory. Rick Moranis gives a great performance as the loud mouth manager, a complete 180 from the typical nebbish roles he was given in the aftermath of “Ghostbusters”. Amy Madigan is great as the pretty much obvious lesbian badass partner to Pare, the one who gets shit done without ever falling prey to messy feelings. Even Bill Paxton (RIP buddy) comes in to do his thing for a bit. It all builds to a movie that on it’s face may be a messy and silly movie but congeals into something truly special.
A lovely ode to young love and the pain of having to grow up when the reality of the relationship turns out to be harmful. Watching Pare have to tearfully walk away from the woman he loves and who clearly loves him because he doesn’t want to ruin her life is really heartbreaking. All set to the wonderful track “Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young” with Hill’s masterful filmmaking bonafides makes it one of the most engrossing scenes in all of Hills work.
It’s a stunning movie and one that gets better with every rewatch. It’s also yet another influential movie, as it has many fans in the film industry. None may be bigger than Edgar Wright, who was so clearly enamored with this movie (and another Hill movie on this list) that he crafted a movie in a similar vein. If you wanna see a movie that does what La La Land does without the self congratulatory feel and the smugly obvious self aware love of old movies, “Streets of Fire” is where it’s at.
2. The Driver (1978)
In the year of our lord 2017, we are still living in a world that is indebted to the work Hill did on “The Driver”. Edgar Wright has brought this movie back into the public consciousness in a big way. Hell, Wright had to convince Hill that the movie is a classic amongst cinephiles.
A movie that bombed in 1978 has bred an audience of filmmakers that took all the right lessons from Hill (excluding Nicolas Winding Refn, who made a bland ole wannabe with “Drive”). Hill would really make his claim for his style in this movie, his sophomore effort. Mythic but stripped down genre fare with style to boot that never overwhelms the movie.
Here he makes a very existential drama out of a car chase/heist movie, with characters lacking names. They are just what roles they fill. Ryan O’Neal is just The Driver. Bruce Dern is just The Detective. These two become enmeshed in a war for their very existences, as they make a bet that would render them incapable of being what they are. It’s a battle for their souls wrapped up in a thrilling movie with some of the best car chases committed to film.
Hill perfectly cast his movie with these two leads. Dern has always been perfect as a little amoral weasels, and it’s played to the hilt here as a guy that is just barely good, twisting the law to his own ends to catch the elusive Driver. And Ryan O’Neal has never been used this well, his inherent pretty boy blandness used to perfection as that is what the character is. Just a bland vessel for inhuman driving.
It’s really hard to imagine a genre world before Hill got to it, doing stuff that Michael Mann would build upon years later. Genre filmmaking given such a neon sheen to add an ambience to it which would allow the stunts and violence to stand out even more as the brutality amidst the beauty was stark. Hill’s economy and love of genre came out in full force here and it changed cinema, as a part of a 1-2 punch of influence with his follow up movie that is the only movie higher on this list.
1. The Warriors (1979)
This movie is just pure perfection. It’s pure lightning in a bottle, something was so perfect and pure that it would reverberate for generations. Filled completely with iconography at every step of the way. Hell, the movie even opens up with such an amazing shot of the Wonder Wheel in Coney Island. And as much as Walter Hill may get a rap for being low key and crime fiction centric, but this may be the purest distillation of his interests and style.
For as much as he likes to strip things down and cut away the fat, he is also a man who deals in grand archetypes and comic book storytelling. It’s a hard balancing act to maintain the gritty realism with the colorful comic book world he dreamt up, but he nailed it here. Following the greek inspired narrative of a gang trying to get back to their home turf after a gang assassination is blamed on them, the movie is a grand odyssey through the wild streets of a near apocalyptic NYC.
The amount of imagination on display in the design of the innumerable amount of street gangs is astounding. The Baseball Furies might be the most iconic of the Warriors foes, but all the rest are great too. From the Gramercy Riffs to the Turnbull ACs to the Rogues all the way down to the Orphans. His action is on point as usual, allowing the gangs to really feel like worthy brawlers. The fights hurt. Not only that, but the character work is great.
Hill does shows his chops in this regard, using his short run time perfectly. We get to know all of these guys without endless exposition to set them up as tragic figures or whatever. We just know them. So when some of them start to die, we feel the tragedy of it. The style on display and the storytelling has influenced countless filmmakers and storytellers. So much so that it got a second life in the 2000’s when Rockstar Games decided to make it a video game that is really god damn good. It’s kind of stunning.
It’s run around in the hip hop game like Scarface has. Talk of a remake has been going around for years now. Hill himself has recut the movie for home video (controversially) to add in comic book style scene transitions to make the comic book feel more obvious. Few movies have the life that this one has and it’s for good cause. It’s a purely of its time movie from that amazing period in the 70s where artists got to make some wild stuff. By doing so, it has transcended its time like so many of its brethren have. Fun and thrilling, there is no more Walter Hill movie to have existed.
Author Bio: Tom Lorenzo is Long Island, NY’s most preeminent pop culture fanatic. If it’s a western or a horror movie, he wants to see it. No argument is too minuscule or flawed for him to go full force with.