Borderline

It’s a shame about EXTREME PREJUDICE (1987). As with SOUTHERN COMFORT, the cutting is terrific, the action is well staged (minimal but telling use of slomo), but it’s not as engaging or efficient as a story. Maybe the combination of Hill and John Milius, who’s credited with coming up with the story, is too much macho bullshit for me. (Curious that for a long time Hill and Milius, “right-wing anarchists” — libertarians? — were very popular with liberal UK critics, at least until Milius took it all too far with RED DAWN, a deeply silly film). But there’s also quite a bit wrong with the way the movie interweaves its plot threads, and the central one just isn’t very interesting.

The subplot, which comes on like the main plot and is consistently more interesting, is the illicit activities of a CIA squad consisting of men officially dead, and whose leader (Michael Ironside, yay!) has gone rogue and is using his men to destroy evidence of his corrupt dealings with drug lord Powers Boothe (astonishing, an underused cinematic resource). The main plot is the old one about the cop and crook who grew up together. Here, Boothe is paired with Nick Nolte as a Texas Ranger (the setting is Tex-Mex border) but the trouble is their relationship doesn’t change from beginning to the end, and also Nolte for some reason is playing it like Judge Dredd, emotionless and flat. The two antagonists also share a girlfriend, Maria Conchita Alonso, but she has nothing to do except be objectified. Hill heroines mainly fall into two camps, the leading ladies with unsatisfying stereotype roles, and the characters written as guys in the first draft who he changes into girls — ALIEN’s Ripley, written as a guy by the original scenarists, is the most famous example, but Amy Madigan in STREETS OF FIRE is another. These gals are pretty exciting though it’s occasionally apparent that they’re the writer in drag.

To celebrate Nolte’s recent weight loss (a result of kicking the booze, I think) the movie has him fight a lot of fat guys. One is even called Chub.

These two stories butt up against each other throughout, usually by means of violent action, which is as impressively ouchy, at least at first, as the mayhem of SCOMFORT. But they resolve messily — the Wild Bunch last stand of the CIA guys is a spectacular climax, but it’s followed by Nolte versus Boothe which is tedious by comparison, and the two don’t sufficiently affect or complicate one another. There’s a fun early turn by Rip Torn in perpetual sneer (“State legislature, shit! Only thing worse than a politician is a child molester.”) but he gets taken out of the picture in bloody fashion much too soon, leaving Nolte to interact, or inter-nonreact, with faceless subordinates for the rest of the show.

But the airport scene at the start, setting up the CIA good/bad guys, is one for the books. I haven’t seen Hill’s later westerns but I have BROKEN TRAIL on DVD. Guess I’ll take a look.

12 Responses to “Borderline”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    “Red Dawn” was remade BTW (not by Milius), years after the fall of the Soviet Union. This underscores the desperate need white right-wing men have to feel abject and “oppressed” (Male Weepies like “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Green Mile” are other examples of this pathetic sub-genre) Milius’ surfer saga “Big Wednesday” (starring the beautiful and doomed Jan-Michael Vincent) is a much more acceptable example of this.

    Milius’ most interesting film is “The Wind and the Lion” a “based on a true story but not really romantic spectacular. Sean Connery plays ad Arab chieftain who creates an international incident when he kidnaps Candice Bergin — you do the math. Who better to play an Arab chieftain than Sean Connery? As for Candice Bergen on the actual incident a man was kidnapped. A no-starter needless to say

  2. “We just assume he learned English from a Scotsman,” was Milius’ explanation, I believe. I enjoy that film, made under the influence of A High Wind in Jamaica but without that film’s alarming undertones (“like watching Shirley Temple pulls the wings off a fly” said one reviewer).

    Jerry Goldsmith did the terrific score for both that and Extreme Prejudice. I miss him.

    My favourite favourite Milius is still Dillinger. Walter Hill doesn’t take himself so seriously. Has anyone seen his crazy sex change action movie?

  3. David Ehrenstein Says:

    A sex change action movie? Sounds tempting. What’s it called?

  4. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    I think John Milius is a case of someone whose large real-life personality overwhelmed his artistic inclinations. He is so big himself that he’s not able to fully realize characters and situations other than himself. As a screenwriter and general linchpin, he’s a key figure in the ’70s and beyond, but as a director I don’t think his films hold up well. Milius is John Huston, if her were right-wing, and lacked Huston’s capacity to be a great director and professional. Huston was also a great personality and egomaniac but he made his bullshit work for him rather than the other way around.

    The Wind and the Lion, to add to what David E. has said, is suffused with orientalism but even aside from that, the entire Theodore Roosevelt stuff is extraneous and irrelevant to the film and creates and odd structure. Dillinger is a good film but Altman’s THIEVES LIKE US which is also a period Depression gangster film from the ’70s is better and less sexist. I actually think Conan the Barbarian is his most satisfying film even if it’s his most pulp adventure film.

  5. I can’t get over Milius bragging about how popular Conan would have been in the Third Reich.

    Hill’s The Assignment has Sigourney Weaver as a rogue surgeon turning a male assassin into Michelle Rodriguez, who then seeks revenge. It sounds bananas, and wrong in just about every possible way.

  6. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    It does capture a pulp Wagnerian essence especially in the final scenes, so I can see why he’d say that. Given that Milius is Jewish himself (he *is* the inspiration for John Goodman’s character in The Big Lebowski) I hope he was being partly tongue-in-cheek. Milius’ puts on this exaggerated right-wing American identity partly, I think (and hope) to compensate for the fact that he originated outside that, so there’s an air of “plus royaliste que le roi” to him. I kind of feel that Milius is suffused with a sense of regret. He was an outsider to a macho cultural hegemony and then by the time he dedicated his personality to fit into that, that hegemony got discredited in the ’60s and ’70s and Milius was caught in the middle because he’s too smart for “actually existing conservatism” and too much for the alternative. So there’s a certain poignance to him.

    I am a huge fan of Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra, I think it’s legitimately a great film, one of his best and is maybe the only Ancient Epic movie that captures the essence of the Roman Pre-Christian cultural ethos. There have been talks for another Cleopatra movie in the news for a decade or more (at various points Angelina Jolie was supposed to do it…a casting the last Pharoah of Egypt would approve of, perhaps).

  7. David Ehrenstein Says:

    You’re quite right. It’s truly great. It’s the last “Old Hollywood” movie. 20the Century-Fox collapsed beneath it. They were forced to seel the backlot and thus “Century City” was born. At the same time it looks forward to “New Hollywood” spectaculars like “Apocalypse Now” and “Heaven’s Gate”

    As for the Third Reich, Adolph Hitler’s favorite film was “The Broadway Melody of 1940”

  8. EXTREME PREJUDICE immediately struck me as another THEY SAVED HITLER’S BRAIN: Write in some extraneous characters to eat up running time and kill them all off before the climax, which proceeds as if they’d never existed. Maybe this indicates the “main” storyline didn’t really have enough there there.

  9. The most significant thing the “zombie squad” do is drive Nolte to Mexico to face-off with Boothe. There’s an attempt to make a big deal out of them getting him in to see his nemesis, but as he just walks into the compound, it’s not really necessary for them to be there.

    On the other hand, their story, implausible as it is, making heroes out of government-sponsored criminals as it does, still is more interesting than Nolte’s, which is the one I’d like to have seen reduced to a cameo.

  10. Oh btw I was almost an extra in EXTREME PREJUDICE but I missed the phone call.

    I ran into a friend at the extra casting call. As two of the few Anglos showing up at a casting call in El Paso, Texas, we were photographed in the same group. He got to play a Texas Ranger who waves at Nick Nolte as he walks past.

  11. I didn’t mention that when Extreme Prejudice played at Edinburgh International Film Festival in 1987, by chance the actor who plays Chub was in town in a play at the Edinburgh Fringe, so he introduced it.

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