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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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times