Walter Hill is a curious case of a talented director who’s fallen on hard times in recent years. His star burned brightest between 1978 and 1982 when his keen eye for cinematic roughhousing heralded the arrival of a macho filmmaker with lots of lead in his pencil. ’78’s The Driver riffed off Jean-Pierre Melville’s laconic cool; Hill’s (now dated) follow-up masterpiece The Warriors re-imagined New York as a hellish inferno ruled by street gangs.
Both films were thinly veiled urban westerns, the director’s burning desire to make a gunslinger epic thwarted by Hollywood’s belief that the genre was as dead as General Custer. “I came along a little later than was ideal,” Hill drawls in the collection’s only extra of note, a dreadfully dull 40-minute interview shot entirely in his LA office. “The speech I’ve heard my entire filmmaking life is that westerns are finished,” he sighs, with a rodeo saddle pointedly positioned in the background.
That didn’t stop him from making proper (period) western The Long Riders in 1980, by which time he’d honed his craft to a lean facsimile of Sam Peckinpah’s slo-mo carnage – although Hill couldn’t quite match his idol’s unique talent for finding operatic grandeur in rivers of claret.
More stealth westerns followed: take-no-prisoners thriller Southern Comfort swapped Injuns for Cajuns; exploitation shoot-’em-up Extreme Prejudice set Nick Nolte’s Stetson-wearing Texas Ranger on the trail of drug cartels tooled up with MAC-10s. Each film tried to distill action cinema down to its testosterone base: a guy and a gun (ditch the girl). Then the talent dried up and the movies lost their edge.
What went wrong? Don’t look for answers here. Skimping on extras (six discs, one interview) and stuttering to a standstill the moment Mickey Rourke plays ugly in Johnny Handsome, this cobbled-together boxset skips key movies like 48 Hrs and flops like Streets Of Fire and ignores Hill’s later, lesser work like Wild Bill and Geronimo. It’s patchy, frustrating and half-cocked. Kind of like the director’s career…