Going down an eighties wormhole

Walter Hill, Sly Stallone and when a film-maker is past his prime.

Walter Hill has a new film out this week. This is good news. The movie itself is not — it’s a flippant and only intermittently fun action movie called Bullet to the Head, which is notable largely for the agonizing spectacle of Sylvester Stallone battling his own immovable facial muscles, clamped mouth and trash-compactor diction to deliver intelligibly the simplest line of dialogue.  “It’s easy to get sentimental about things,” Stallone says at one point. Maybe so, but it’s not easy saying a word like “sentimental” without moving your lips, as Stallone demonstrates. Honestly, it’s like amateur ventriloquists’ night. Anyone for a gottle o’ geer?

Nevertheless, I wrung a few rich drops of enjoyment from the picture. Perhaps this was made possible by my undying respect for Hill, whose 1970s and 1980s work has earned him a lifetime’s worth of credit. Or it could be down to the fact that there were many films like Bullet to the Head made in the 1980s, and I went to see them all, so the movie became a bit of a time-travel expedition for me. There is nothing to distinguish it from that era except for a few modern gadgets and references to the internet. Certainly the screeching blues-rock score and the guns-are-fun attitude seem to have been cryogenically frozen from the Mullet Age. And not just guns. While the title demands the destruction of assorted skulls belonging to minor cast members, the film could just as happily be called Axe to the Foot or Flick-knife to the Neck. But I was a little disappointed to find that parts of it aren’t very well directed. One particular shot, seen through the eyes of a dead man, makes no sense. The dead can’t see anything. You can’t go around giving them point-of-view shots.

The film pairs Stallone, as a bounty hunter named Jimmy Bobo, with a straitlaced cop (Sung Kang) on a revenge mission in a clammy New Orleans (locations include a tattoo parlour, a bathhouse and a succession of sticky, neon-lit bars). There’s a juicy cameo from Christian Slater as a minor-league villain who is called upon to shout entire chunks of plot information (“This goes way up!”) and to call Stallone a “dumbbell”. (Please, somebody, put Christian Slater in more films: he’s still really good.) And I liked the casting of Jason Momoa as Stallone’s main adversary, the one with whom he goes head-to-head, or rather axe-to-axe, during the violent climax. Momoa recently played the title role in Conan the Barbarian, the reboot of the 1982 sword-and-sandals adventure which starred Stallone’s old box-office nemesis Arnold Schwarzenegger. So, in a way, Stallone fights (and—not really a spoiler, this—brutally vanquishes) a Schwarzenegger proxy. He’s doing what therapists warn us about: he’s restaging endlessly the battles of his past, hoping for a brighter outcome. Do stop me if I’m disappearing into a 1980s wormhole here.

Hill’s most notable credit over the last decade was his Emmy-winning work on the abrasive HBO series Deadwood. The last film he actually directed (a 2002 prison boxing thriller called Undisputed) went straight to video in the UK. The one before that, Supernova, didn’t even have his name on it, having passed through an array of other filmmakers during its troubled history (Francis Ford Coppola, Geoffrey Wright and Jack Sholder were all reported to have directed or re-cut parts of it). Before that? Before that, he was really something.

His films are pared to the bone—none more so than The Driver, the 1978 thriller that marked his first significant success. (If you’ve seen the Ryan Gosling movie Drive, you’ve basically seen The Driver 90210.) Until its release, Hill had a pile of genre screenplays to his credit, all of which displayed the same stripped-down approach that he would elevate to an art form once he got comfortable in the director’s chair. Among his produced work at that time was The Getaway (1973), an unsparing crime picture directed by one of his heroes and spiritual cousins, Sam Peckinpah, and The Drowning Pool (1975), a downbeat Paul Newman vehicle that threw audiences in at the deep end. In the same year, Hill directed Hard Times (aka The Streetfighter) from his own script, casting Charles Bronson as a bareknuckle boxer. But it was The Driver that provided the purest distillation yet of Hill’s modus operandi.

You need only peruse the character names to get the gist. Ryan O’Neal is The Driver. Bruce Dern is The Detective. Isabelle Adjani is The Player. Ronee Blakley is The Connection. Walter Hill is Frugal With Information. The viewers are Left To Figure Things Out For Themselves.

Dispensing with the back story, subtext and motivation so beloved of other filmmakers creates an existentialist environment in Hill’s work and allows him to cut to the chase—literally so in the case of The Driver, much of which takes place on four wheels. As the title character, a taciturn getaway driver, Ryan O’Neal doesn’t get to deliver a monologue about how he chose a life of crime because his daddy didn’t love him. He just sits at the wheel, cool as a cucumber, hot as mustard. For a man who spends his life in constant, hair-raising motion, he’s curiously still and serene.

It should be remembered that Hill is capable of cracking a wry smile when the mood takes him. He may have been a big influence on the work of Michael Mann, but Mann can’t conjure the authentic smell of pulp like Hill does in The Driver and later movies like Streets of Fire (1984) and Johnny Handsome (1989). And I’ll eat my MOT the day Mann does anything as funny as the sequence in which The Driver takes the car of his potential employers for a spin in an underground car park. “How do we know you’re good?” they make the mistake of asking him. “Get in,” he shoots back. Within seconds, the wheels are spinning into a blur and the car is slaloming around the concrete pillars: forwards, backwards, sideways, turning on a dime. The Driver strategically demolishes the vehicle, losing a light here, a door there. At the end of this bravura demonstration, the car is a shadow of its former self, but The Driver doesn’t have a hair out of place.  

Hill went on to co-write the screenplay of Alien (1979), and was instrumental in getting Ridley Scott to direct that movie. His own movies became steadily more daring. There was The Warriors (1979), a visually delicious succès de scandale about New York’s gang culture; his accomplished western, The Long Riders (1980); the Deliverance-like thriller Southern Comfort (1981); a box-office smash in the shape of 48HRS (1982), which marked Eddie Murphy’s spectacular film debut; and the garish, visionary rock’n’roll adventure of Streets of Fire.

But The Driver remains unrivalled as Hill’s signature movie—and, next to low-rent fare like Bullet to the Head, it’s likely to retain that position. In a culture where every blockbuster is nudging three hours, and rewrites and script polishes overburden a movie with unnecessary incident, it’s fat-free film-making. In one scene, The Detective observes that the sports pages are the best part of a newspaper because they report only “winners, losers, how it happened, score". In that line is the essence of Walter Hill.

"Bullet to the Head" is released on Friday

 

Walter Hill at the premiere of "Bullets to the Head" (credit: Getty Images)

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism