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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The NS Q&A: Naomi Alderman on Oprah, Ovid, and Buffy The Vampire Slayer

"The worst things that ever happened to me were before I was 20."

What’s your earliest memory?

Sitting on a striped blue-and-white deckchair with a migraine. My mother gave me orange squash. We’ve worked out (from the deckchair) that I was 18 months old.

Who was your childhood hero?

I was incredibly inspired by Oprah Winfrey as a young woman. Her childhood (sexual and physical abuse, teenage pregnancy, the death of her baby) was traumatic, and her subsequent life has been defined by hard work, talent and one glorious victory after another. People in the UK can sneer about her because we are terrified of emotions and she’s not perfect (who is?), but she introduced me to the possibility of improving one’s internal life. A miracle.

What was the last book that made you envy the writer?

Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill. It’s as if he managed to voyage back a few hundred years and just take notes.

What political figure, past or present, do you look up to?

Florence Nightingale, who was a terrible nurse but a brilliant statistician and wielded her public image to influence politicians to improve health care. I wish that she were still around, skewering ministers misusing statistics on Question Time.

When were you happiest?

Now. The worst things that ever happened to me were before I was 20. It has been slow, hard-won improvement since then.

What would be your Mastermind special subject?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Ovid. Both are intensely serious, as well as funny. Both wield myths to talk about their modern world. Both are subjects I’d like to revise.

Which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live in?

The future. As far as possible. Not to live, though – just to visit.

Who would paint your portrait?

I’d like [the 16th-century Dutch painter] Jan van Scorel, please, with the same affection and knowingness as his portrait of Agatha van Schoonhoven. They lived together and had six children, even though he was a canon and couldn’t marry.

What’s your theme tune?

A Jewish song that goes: “Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor . . .” It translates as: “It’s not up to you to finish the work, but neither are you free to refrain from it.”

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? And have you followed it?

I know how this sounds, but my deceased grandmother appeared to me in a dream once and told me something I can’t share. But I did follow her advice and it was excellent. (Thanks, Booba and/or my subconscious.)

What’s currently bugging you?

Brexit. I want to start a campaign called “Back in 30” – to get us back into the EU by 2030, when Remainers (or Rejoiners) will almost certainly be a convincing majority.

What single thing would make your life better?

I wish that Gordon Brown had called a snap election in 2007.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

I think I would have enjoyed running a business (and I sort of do run one now, with the video games). I’ve got the brain for systems and a head for figures. But all these daydreams end with: “And I could carve out time to write.”

Are we all doomed?

No. The species will continue, whatever apocalypse we manage to unleash. It just won’t be much fun to live through.

Naomi Alderman’s novel “The Power” (Penguin) is shortlisted for the Baileys Prize

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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