Minimalism is the key characteristic of the early films of Walter Hill, as exemplified by his car chase classic The Driver (1978), in which the characters are simply referred to as The Driver, The Detective and The Girl. These films are lean, mean, unpretentious thrillers in which existential characters are energised by street-smart storytelling and expertly staged action sequences. The Driver fuses the cool methodology of Jean-Pierre Melville with the pure pulp of dime store fiction to focus on the professional rivalry between a getaway specialist (Ryan O’Neal) and an obsessive cop (Bruce Dern), both of whom are aided and impeded by an elusive femme fatale (Isabelle Adjani). Hill’s characters exist in the moment, rarely considering consequence, which makes The Driver as ambiguous as it is exciting.
The Warriors (1979) is the socially prescient story of a small-time New York gang that is framed for assassinating Cyrus, the charismatic underworld leader who has been trying to bring a truce to the streets. They attempt to escape the South Bronx, only to be attacked at every turn by gangs with such menacing monikers as The Orphans and The Baseball Furies. Accused of inciting violence upon release, The Warriors is an electrifying excursion into urban subculture, which utilises such locations as Coney Island, Central Park and deserted subway stations to unsettling effect.
The protagonists of Southern Comfort (1981) are also being hunted, but this time our heroes are National Guardsmen, the urban jungle has been replaced by the boggy marshes of a Louisiana swamp, and the antagonists are Cajuns who do not like to be disrespected on their land. Although Southern Comfort can be viewed as a metaphor for the Vietnam War, with American soldiers becoming undermined in an environment that they do not understand territorially or culturally, it is first and foremost a suspenseful action picture that gradually grips through a sustained sense of sweaty atmosphere.
Each of these films is influenced by the pared-down moral universe of the western, and Hill attempted to revive the moribund genre with The Long Riders (1980), an evocative vision of the Old West which offers a sympathetic portrait of the Jesse James gang, with real-life acting siblings cast as the brothers that formed the outlaw posse. Although the pace is leisurely compared to the director’s contemporary thrillers, the film exudes the authenticity which would later distinguish the HBO series Deadwood, which Hill produced.
Extreme Prejudice (1987) and Johnny Handsome (1989) serve as examples of Hill’s late-80s creative decline. The former features Nick Nolte as a Texas Ranger taking on a drugs cartel, while the latter stars Mickey Rourke as a hideously disfigured criminal who is offered a second chance at life following extensive cosmetic surgery. Both are more melodramatic than Hill’s earlier oeuvre, and concede to, rather than challenge, the conventions of action cinema. While these later studio assignments are defined by the time in which they were made, Hill’s early films are visceral genre vehicles that are still ahead of the curb.