The seventies birthed many elements of culture that are standard today. For the film industry, this meant a new bread of young writers, directors, and actors who weren’t afraid to push the envelope in terms of tasteful or suitable subject matter. One of those directors was Walter Hill, who would create Some of the most thematically satisfying movies of the era. Here are five essential Walter Hill movies you have to watch.
5. The Warriors (1979)
Let’s get started with perhaps Hill’s most iconic films; the gritty urban survival flick, The Warriors. Set in New York over the course of one night, a street gang must fight their way through a legion of hoods, baying for their blood. Released at the tale-end of the seventies, the film couldn’t help but capture the decay of a city perched on the precipice of a black hole. Think I’m overreacting? Read my retrospective piece that goes into further detail about how New York’s economic decline influenced the film.
The Warriors was the first Walter Hill film I’d seen, and admittedly I was young. It lit a flame of passion in me for the action thrillers released during that era. It was criticised in its day for its ultra-violence and apparent tacit endorsement of gang culture that was a growing issue in major cities. With the benefit of time, the Warriors has become a classic cult movie, with a passionate following of fans that keep the movie’s influence alive for future generations.
The Warriors is available on Amazon Prime.
4. Red Heat (1988)
I love Red Heat! It’s an uncomplicated, unabashedly action-focused movie about two cops taking down a psychopathic Georgian drug baron. Featuring the legendary Arnold Schwarzenegger as stone-faced Soviet Ivan Danko and James Belushi as Chicago cop Art Ridzic, Red Heat is a prime example of the late 80s obsession and fear of the Soviet Union. When Captain Ivan Danko corners feared drug lord Viktor Rostavili in a sting operation, Viktor shoots Danko’s partner and escapes to America. Hot on his heels, Ivan builds a shaky alliance with a Chicago cop the refuses to allow domestic or foreign politics to get in the way of stopping the bad guy.
Read Heat has everything an easily pleased movie-goer like me could want. International crime gangs – check! Witty detectives – check! A general feeling of decay in 1980s America – double check! There is no need to lift this film to the heights of epics of Lawrence of Arabia or Chariots of Fire… it’s not. What It is, is a brilliant buddy cop film that delivers thrill, gags and oodles of dry Schwarzenegger quotable one-liners.
Red Heat is available on Amazon Prime.
3. Last Man Standing (1996)
As the saying goes, “there’s nothing new under the sun”. Whether true or not, the saying rings true where Hollywood is concerned. Countless movies have been remade or received sequels or prequels. Japanese cinema has also been westernised in the Spaghetti Westerns of the 60s and our next entry on our list. Based on Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, Last Man Standing tells the story of John Smith in a Prohibition-era Texas town named Jericho. The border town is besieged by two ethnic gangs who’ve split the town in two, leaving its scant citizenship caught in the middle.
I like when movies doesn’t need to adopt a moral position on good or evil. There are no hero’s in Last Man Standing; everyone is morally dubious, including our protagonist, John Smith. So too is the film’s premise almost fantastical in nature, to be ludicrous. There is no more profound social commentary on the impact of the Great Depression. Walter Hill doesn’t attempt the stylised western feel of A Fist Full of Dollars, nor the masterful direction of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Instead, it’s an efficient action movie that doesn’t outstay its welcome, with good performances from an impressive crew, including Bruce Willis, Bruce Dern and Christopher Walken.
Last Man Standing is available on Amazon Prime.
2. 48 HRS (1982)
Along with New York and Los Angeles, the city of San Fransisco became a popular setting for Hollywood action movies. Something about the peculiar geography of the town lends itself to that particular genre. The near-vertical roads intensify high-octane car chases, lifting them to iconic status alas Bullet. Walter Hill’s buddy cop classic 48 HRS embraces the nightlife of San Fransisco, following the antics of a hot-headed cop Jack Cates (Nick Nolte) and quick-talking crook Reggie Hammond (Eddie Murphy). When a dangerous criminal named Ganz escapes a chain gang, the unlikely duo must work together to take him down before Murphy’s two days of freedom are up.
48 HRS is arguably the first film that we would recognise as a ‘Buddy Cop’ caper. Every cliche common to the genre is on show here. There’s the dichotomy between two men of different races (some racist language here) to the constantly ballistic boss who’s always giving Jack a hard time. James Remar delivers a chilling performance as Ganz, marking him as a go-to actor for a villain. We also see two of Hill’s thematic tendencies on show here. The director often reused actors that he presumably enjoyed working with, chiefly David Patrick Kelly who appeared in four of the auteur’s movies. It’s a fabulously funny flick that launched Eddie Murphy’s career as an actor – the rest is history.
48 HRS is available on Amazon Prime.
1. Southern Comfort (1981)
In the late seventies into the eighties, a new genre we saw was films based on the Vietnam War. Unlike the Korean War, which was considered a deadlock, Vietnam was a disastrous failure for America. Such a punch to American pride led many to explore the facets that made the war unique. Southern Comfort is a Vietnam movie without ever setting foot in the country. The plot is simple and effective, revolving around Louisiana National Guards on weekend maneuverers in the bayou. They soon find themselves hunted by the local Cajun people after antagonising them.
The marshy landscape of the bayou is an almost other-worldly setting. It contrasts the Cajun locals as different to city natives as American soldiers were to the people of Vietnam. The National Guard are arrogant, racist and expansionist, viewing the locals as backwards while failing to understand their ignorance of the differences in the Cajun peoples culture. They, not the locals, are the ones in danger. Hill weaves thematics usual to war movies, adding an element of horror and survival to devastating effect, leaving the viewer on the edge of their seat until the credits roll.
Southern Comfort is available on Amazon Prime.
Alongside John Carpenter, Walter Hill is among the greatest directors to emerge from the new-age cinema of the sixties and seventies. Sure, the movies aren’t getting any younger and feature outdated language and opinions, which will undoubtedly put some off. If you can deal with the dated material, these are five unmissable Walter Hill films that need to be on your watch list.