This week "Bullet to the Head" hits the big screen and marks the long awaited return of a singular voice in American film, Walter Hill. His first film since 2002's marginal prison boxing movie "Undisputed," Hill is probably best known for his role in Ridley Scott's "Alien." Hill produced and co-wrote (with frequent collaborator David Giler) the original script, adding in the Ash reveal and developing the characters more fully. (Together with Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis, Giler and Hill would co-create the highly influential "Tales from the Crypt" TV series; Hill would direct three of the series' most memorable episodes, including the pilot.)
As a writer/director, Hill has had a long and varied career. On the eve of the release of "Bullet to the Head," we thought we would run down his five best films. In recent years, Hill's surly disposition has gotten the better of him, most famously when tensions ran high on his 2000 sci-fi thriller "Supernova," which required Francis Ford Coppola, then a creative consultant for MGM, to shoot additional footage in an attempt to salvage the production. But that doesn't tarnish his filmography, nor does it cool our excitement for "Bullet to the Head."
5: "Extreme Prejudice" (1987)
One of the great lost Walter Hill classics, this hardboiled neo-western, starring Hill regular Nick Nolte as a morally conflicted Texas Ranger, was originally slated to be directed by John Milius (who also co-wrote the script) more than a decade earlier. However, it's hard to imagine anyone but Hill directing this movie, which concerns a Texas border town being overrun by drugs (and invaded by a mysterious military "zombie unit" full of special forces guys supposedly killed in duty). The cast of tough guys is also exceedingly impressive, with Powers Boothe getting to snarl up a storm as Nolte's former BFF turned drug kingpin mortal enemy, and a number of notable character actors filling out the ranks of the zombie unit (among them Michael Ironside, Clancy Brown and an electric William Forsythe). Unrelentingly violent and bleak, even by Hill's admittedly loose standards, "Extreme Prejudice" never really found the audience, but it's due for rediscovery -- there's so much to appreciate, from Jerry Goldsmith's moody score, to Maria Conchita Alonso's boobs, to the epic climactic shootout.
4. "48 Hrs" (1982)
It's easy to forget how groundbreaking "48 Hrs" really was. It pretty much invented the "buddy cop" genre, which would be endlessly replicated for decades. The plot of "48 Hrs" is ridiculously straightforward -- a cop (frequent Hill confederate Nick Nolte) is on the hunt for some vicious thugs and so he decides to release one of the thugs' former gang members (Eddie Murphy) from prison for… (wait for it)… 48 hours. That's literally the entire plot. Thankfully, Hill cast two ridiculously talented actors in the lead roles (parts that were originally being eyeballed by Clint Eastwood and Richard Pryor), who brought so much more to the characters. Unlike many of the movies that came afterward, in which two mismatched characters are forced to become partners, you really get the sensation that these two guys cannot stand each other. It gives the movie a dangerous kind of edge that makes it really fun to watch. "48 Hrs" would remain Hill's biggest financial success… until "Another 48 Hrs."
3. "Southern Comfort" (1981)
Easily Hill's most uncomfortably intense movie, "Southern Comfort" concerns a group of Louisiana National Guardsmen, right after Vietnam, who are set to conduct training maneuvers in the marshy bayou. But while conducting their business, they decide to steal a couple of boats from some local Cajun furriers and, after one of them decides to prank the locals by firing blanks at them, things go straight to hell. The rest of the movie is a nightmarish descent into madness, which Hill conducts in a way that borders on the hallucinogenic. Terrific tough-guy character actors (among them David Carradine, Powers Boothe, Fred Ward and Peter Coyote) play the beleaguered Guardsmen and the movie, as it ratchets up the atmospheric intensity, also becomes weirder and more hyper-violent.
2. "Streets of Fire" (1984)
Bizarre to an almost off-putting degree, "Streets of Fire" was a gonzo action movie musical that pitted rival gangs against one another in a psychedelic city where the aesthetics of the '50s and the '80s created a singular, neon-strewn, highly romantic atmosphere. As a filmmaker, Hill isn't capable of being overtly "clever;" almost everything he does is terribly earnest. So when he sets out to do something like "Streets of Fire," which is inspired in equal part by comic books, ancient archetypes, rock n' roll records, and music videos, there isn't a wink or a nudge in the entire enterprise. It's almost completely (and shockingly) straight-faced, which is what makes it so powerful. "Streets of Fire" is unlike anything you've ever seen before (or since).
1. "The Warriors" (1979)
Kaleidoscopic and comic book-y, Hill's 1979 gangland epic "The Warriors" remains his towering achievement. Based on the novel by Sol Yurick, "The Warriors" concerns the titular gang, as they race through Manhattan, furiously trying to return to Coney Island after being framed for murder. All of the other gangs in New York are after them, and they have to use their wits and encyclopedic knowledge of the subway system to say ahead. Part of what makes "The Warriors" so fun is getting to see what New York looked like back in 1979, when things were really skuzzy and dangerous. Unfortunately, "The Warriors" has the rare distinction of being both Hill's best and worst film. When the movie was re-released on DVD, Hill went back and tampered with it, putting in cheesy "comic book transitions" and underlining the Greek origins. It utterly ruins the mood and atmosphere of the movie and might be the single most destructive director's cut since "Star Wars."