Walter Hill

The Driver

1978                           

20th Century Fox

Produced by Lawrence Gordon

Written And Directed by Walter Hill

Some time back I wrote of review of the existential car chase thriller “Vanishing Point” and I received an email from a gentleman (at least I think it’s a gentleman…you can’t always tell just by email addresses) who informed me that he had seen the movie on my recommendation and found it pretentious and pointless and suggested that I watch and review what he considered to be a much better movie revolving around car chases: Walter Hill’s 1978 crime thriller THE DRIVER  I vaguely remember seeing THE DRIVER years ago at 42end Street.  This was back in the day when you could see three movies for 5 bucks and frankly, I remember the other two movies much better but thanks to The Fox Movie Channel I had a chance to see it again recently.  Maybe “Vanishing Point” is pretentious but THE DRIVER takes pretentiousness to an almost Zen-like level to the point where the characters don’t even have names.  They are just identified by what they are and what they do.

The Driver (Ryan O’Neal) is an undisputed professional master of driving getaway cars.  He does not participate in the actual robbery.  He drives and that’s all.  He commands a flat fee of $10,000 up front and 15% of the take.  And he’s worth it because he guarantees that you won’t get caught.  His driving abilities are inhumanly unnerving and he never displays any emotion at all.  The man’s a driving machine.  His nemesis is The Detective (Bruce Dern) who badly wants to catch The Driver.  So obsessed is he with catching The Driver he puts his career on the line by recruiting a second-rate gang of bank robbers to hire The Driver.  The Detective will ensure that the gang will rob the bank and get away then they’ll bring The Driver and the money to a spot where The Detective will be waiting to arrest The Driver, take the money and let the gang get away.  Of course, the plan doesn’t work out and pretty soon everybody’s double-crossed everybody else and the gang, The Driver and The Detective are all scrambling for the half-million robbery loot while The Driver and The Detective play their own cat-and-mouse game of Catch Me If You Can.  You see, The Detective has told The Driver the robbery is a set-up and he dares him to pull it off and get away.  The Driver takes the challenge and the game’s afoot…or awheel, I suppose is a better phrase in this case.

And that’s there is all, folks.  That is all the movie is about. THE DRIVER is probably the most stripped down movie I’ve ever seen.  There’s no characterizations, no background information about anybody given, No extra characters, no dialog exchanged that does not relate directly to the plot, no flashbacks, no nothing except for what is happening right at the moment.  In fact, there isn’t that much dialog.  Supposedly Ryan O’Neal only speaks 350 words in the whole movie and I think that’s stretching it.  Bruce Dern has most the dialog as The Detective and he’s really the main character in this thing as he has motivations and desires that we can understand and even though he’s a bit of a bastard at least he’s a human bastard.  Ryan O’Neal’s Driver is such an emotionless humanoid that we never understand why he does what he does.  He doesn’t seem to enjoy his work and we never see what he does with the money he makes.  He wears the same clothes throughout the movie and lives in a cheap hotel.  He only has three relationships: The Connection (Ronee Blakely) who sets up his jobs, The Player (Isabelle Adjani) a professional gambler who deliberately misidentifies The Driver in a police line-up, enabling him to avoid arrest and his pocket transistor radio.

There’s no point in talking about the performances in this one because outside of Bruce Dern’s, there are none.  This movie is all about plot and Walter Hill, who wrote and directed THE DRIVER cares about nothing else.  This movie is nowhere as good as some others he’s done such as the “The Warriors” and “Streets of Fire” which are both classics and I’d advise anybody to Netflix “The Long Riders” “Johnny Handsome” or “Extreme Prejudice” before this one.

Even the car chase scenes aren’t all that exciting but I liked them a lot because back then when movies did car chases you knew that some fool was actually doing the driving and when a car flipped over, it was because a trained and experience stuntman was doing it and it added a sense of realism.  For sheer exhilaration, none of the car chases in THE DRIVER don’t match anything done today, true, but it works for this movie because it gives it a gritty realism.  None of the driving stunts done here don’t seem like anything that couldn’t be done in real life and I liked that.  After all, The Driver is supposed to be trying to get away from the cops, not showing off how many aerial acrobatics he can do.  The whole movie has a realistic feel to it that is probably the movie’s greatest strength.  Nobody here takes a whole clip of .45 slugs in the chest then drags himself or herself half a mile before expiring.  You get shot and you fall over dead.  End of story.  There’s no meaningless romance between The Driver and the two women he knows just to have a romantic subplot.  These people are involved in a dirty, dangerous business and they conduct themselves accordingly.

There is one really cool scene where The Driver is asked to demonstrate his skill and he does so by proceeding to demolish a car while he and three passengers are inside. They climb out completely unharmed but the car is a wreck and still able to run.  But that comes halfway through the movie and it’s over much too soon.

So should you see THE DRIVER?  I can think of a couple of reasons why you might want to: if you’re a Walter Hill fan like me, you’ll want to check out this early work of his.  Hill is an infuriating hit-or-miss director.  When he’s good, he’s very good but when he’s bad he’s even worse and THE DRIVER is an example of this, especially in the last five minutes of the movie when you’ll probably be screaming at the screen; “That’s IT????” even as the credits are rolling.  If you like Bruce Dern you’ll also enjoy seeing him in this one as he really doesn’t get to play a cop that often but when he does, he makes the most of it.  If you like him as a cop here, check out “The Laughing Policeman”.

But as for THE DRIVER if you’re at all curious by all means check it out.  But if you’re not, don’t worry, you won’t be missing a thing.

91 minutes

Rated R

The Warriors

1979

Paramount

Directed by Walter Hill

Produced by Lawrence Gordon, Frank Marshall and Joel Silver

Written by David Shaber and Walter Hill

Based on the novel by Sol Yurick

The one Walter Hill movie that everybody can agree on that they love without reservation whatsoever is his 1979 masterpiece THE WARRIORS.  Walter Hill took equal parts of the western, comic books and Greek literature, threw them in a blender and poured this movie out onto the screen.  It’s a tribute to his skill as a director that the movie is still as well known today as when it first had its original theatrical.  Just mention THE WARRIORS to most people, even if they aren’t movie fans and they know it.  Practically everybody I know has seen THE WARRIORS  at least two or three times and if you mention it as a favorite of yours they  will either throw their arms open like Cyrus and howl: “Can You Dig IT?” or imitate David Patrick Kelly: “Warrrriors….come out to playyyyy-aayyyyyy….”

THE WARRIORS takes place in a New York that is overrun by gangs.  Originally, Walter Hill wanted to have a subtitle saying: “Sometime In The Future” but I think he should have set the movie in the alternate world urban jungle of “Streets Of Fire” since this New York has little in common with the New York of our world.  It seems almost entirely populated by gangs and cops and we see almost no regular Joe or Jane Punchclocks in the film.

A charismatic gang leader, Cyrus (Roger Hill) of The Gramercy Riffs has summoned representatives of every gang in the city to come to a meeting in The Bronx.  During a massive rally where Cyrus comes across as a Malcolm X of gangdom, he outlines his plan: collectively, the gangs outnumber the cops nearly five to one.  If they all stop fighting over each other’s  little piece of turf and join forces, the entire city of New York can be theirs   The gangs are behind Cyrus and his plan but he is shot and killed by the psychotic Luther (David Patrick Kelly) of The Rogues.  The gang rally is raided by the NYPD and using the confusion to his advantage, Luther places the blame the killing of Cyrus on The Warriors.  The Warrior leader Cleon (Dorsey Wright) is jumped and killed by The Gramercy Riffs while the remaining Warriors have no choice to run for their lives with every gang in New York as well as the cops after them.  This means they have to battle every mile of the way from The Bronx back to their home turf of Coney Island in Brooklyn using the subway for transportation.

Now take it from somebody who has lived in New York all their life and this is no lie: You can take an airplane from New York to Florida in a shorter amount of time than you can take a train from The Bronx to Brooklyn and that’s without a horde of gangs trying to kill you or cops trying to arrest you.  The Warriors have to do it in one night and it’s one hell of a night indeed.

Like most great stories, it’s a simple and time-tested one.  Indeed, the supposed inspiration for THE WARRIORS is based on the Greek story of ‘Anabasis’, which is about a band of Greek mercenaries betrayed and stranded far from home and their desperate march to safety.  But I’ve seen any number of westerns where Army patrols or wagon trains are lost and stranded in Indian territory and have to fight their way to safety and Walter Hill himself would use this theme again in his “Streets Of Fire” where his small band of heroes have to once again fight their way out of a dangerous, hostile land and get back to the safety of familiar home ground.   All of these genres have echoes in THE WARRIORS as well as comic books, which is what Walter Hill himself has said THE WARRIORS is: a live action comic book.

And I can see where he’s coming from.  Certainly there have never been real life gangs in New York like The Gramercy Riffs who dress in tailor-fitted karate outfits or The Boppers who wear purple vests, neatly pressed shirts, ties, applejacks and have spats on their shoes or The High-Hats who look like mimes wearing Abraham Lincoln stovepipe hats and let’s not forget The Baseball Furies who look like The New York Mets in Kiss makeup.

And take the racial makeup of The Warriors, for instance.  While every other gang in the movie is shown as having racial/ethnic roots, The Warriors are plainly multi-cultural with three blacks, two guys who look as if they could be Italian, one guy who looks as if he might be Polish, two possible Hispanics and one guy who could conceivably be anything you like.

Originally, Walter Hill wanted The Warriors to be an all-black gang but the producers put their foot down on that right quick and said no.  I notice they didn’t have any problem with The Gramercy Riffs, who are the nominal bad guys orchestrating the nightlong hunt for The Warriors be all black, though.  And as I said earlier, we hardly see anybody else in the movie besides the gangs and the cops and that lends to the alternate world feel of the movie.  This is a strangely depopulated New York; unusual for a city that is active 24/7/365.

I’d like to be able to say that the movie has outstanding performances but I honestly can’t.  Most of the actors in the movie were just starting out and went onto other films where their acting abilities could really shine but here, the main thing is the atmosphere, the style, the action and the suspense of us wondering if The Warriors are going to make it back to Brooklyn.  Michael Beck plays Swan who leads The Warriors after Cleon is killed and he goes through the movie with clenched jaw and single minded determination to get his men home.  A baby-faced James Remar is Ajax, the chief ass-kicker of the gang who is taken out of the movie much too soon.  Deborah Van Valkenberg is Mercy who is originally part of The Orphans but switches to The Warriors and she probably turns in the best acting job of the movie as she does a great job of showing Mercy’s thirst for the sex and violence gang life brings.  There’s a scene where a Warrior is fighting with a cop and she’s standing there watching, eyes shining brightly, breathing heavily and obviously sexually excited by the violence.  And there’s a fight in a subway men’s bathroom where she gleefully throws herself into the middle of the fight and again it’s obvious she’s getting a sexual charge out of big sweaty guys beating the hell outta each other.  And we won’t even talk about what she does on Friday or Saturday nights except to say that when you watch the movie, look at the expression on her face when she talks about what she does on Friday and Saturday nights and how Saturday nights are better than Friday.

I’d like to also mention the late Lynn Thigpen who plays The DJ who during the night is giving out information to the gangs hunting The Warriors and plays records to taunt them as her character puts an interesting spin on the action we’re watching.  Listening to her and her constant sports references, I realized that the action of THE WARRIORS was a metaphor for…and don’t laugh…a baseball game.  Her character acts as a commentator of the action.  The Warriors are the home team who start out with nine men and the NYPD act as referees who remove any Warrior who deviates from their goal of trying to get back home (yer out!).  The subways are the base lines and each stop where The Warriors have a fight are all bases.  The  first one is in the park with The Baseball Furies.   The second one is in the lair of the Lizzies, a lesbian gang.  And the third one is in the Union Station Bathroom with The Punks.  Or maybe I’m reading more into it than is really there.  You tell me.

And no review of THE WARRIORS can be complete with mentioning David Patrick Kelly who plays Luther.  Most of the best moments in the movie come from him and his really loopy performance, especially the classic scene where he has three empty Budweiser bottles on his fingers and he’s clinking them together, exhorting The Warriors to “come out and playyyyyy-ayyyyyy”.  But I really like the scene where Michael Beck asks him why did he kill Cyrus and throw the city’s gangs into a frenzy?  Kelly replies simply: “I like doing stuff like that…it’s fun.”  No high-minded motives for this cat.

So should you see THE WARRIORS?  Most of you reading this have probably seen it already and more than one time so I’m preaching to the choir when I say it’s an absolute action masterpiece that is necessary viewing.  For those of you who haven’t seen it, I strongly advise you to Netflix THE WARRIORS the next time you’re sitting at home on the weekend wondering what to rent.  It’s a perfect Saturday night movie and despite the acting and somewhat silly dialog at times, the movie overcomes those shortcomings with a solid story and some really cool action/fight scenes. THE WARRIORS has well deserved its reputation.  It’s simply and truly one hell of a good movie and should be seen on nothing more than that basis.

93 minutes

Rated R: I can’t believe that viewers today would actually be offended by the violence in THE WARRIORS.  It’s not even comic book violence as comic books nowadays are far more violent than this movie.  Even the language isn’t all that bad.  I don’t know if that’s a reflection on us as a society today or what but hey, I just review movies, not society.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Long Riders

 

1980

United Artists/MGM

Produced by Tim Zinneman

Directed by Walter Hill

Written by Bill Bryden, Steven Smith, James Keach & Stacey Keach

Walter Hill has long been one of the most dependable directors working in Hollywood for more than thirty years now.  Even though you don’t hear his name as much as some others, he’s always there, turning out excellent, entertaining movies with such ease and regularity that I don’t think people know exactly just how good he is.  Most people are familiar with “48 Hours” and “Another 48 Hours” the two movies that made Eddie Murphy a movie star.  But I knew Walter Hill long before that from movies such as “Streets of Fire” “Trespass” “Johnny Handsome” and “Extreme Prejudice” and who could forget “The Warriors”?

Walter Hill is also a major fan of westerns and many of his modern day movies are actually westerns.  “Streets Of Fire” is a rock and roll version of “The Searchers” and “Extreme Prejudice” with Nick Nolte as a hardass Texas Ranger up against gunrunner Powers Booth is very much a modern day western with a climatic shootout that is clearly inspired by Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” Walter Hill knows his way around westerns as he proved with THE LONG RIDERS which still holds up very well I think as a superior example of the genre and I consider just as much a classic as “The Warriors”

The movie recounts the fabled exploits of the James/Younger Gang who robbed trains and banks in post Civil War Missouri.  The twist in this movie is that brothers in the gang are also played by real life brothers.  So we’ve got Stacey and James Keach playing Frank and Jesse James.  David Carradine, Keith Carradine and Robert Carradine play The Younger brothers.  Dennis Quaid and Randy Quaid play The Miller brothers while Christopher Guest and Nicholas Guest are Bob and Charlie Ford.  It’s an interesting acting experiment that I think pays off extremely well.  Having real life brothers play these roles gives them an intimacy the actors didn’t have to work at.  Scenes between the actors have warmth and a feel that doesn’t have to be forced.  You believe right from the start that these guys are brothers.  And their natural resemblance helps greatly as well.  Don’t you get annoyed when movies try to pass off actors that have absolutely no resemblance whatsoever to each other as family?

The movie doesn’t actually have a solid plot or story.  We follow the members of The James/Younger gang as they go about their day job of robbing and stealing and then they return to the safety of their Missouri home where everybody treats them like heroes.  Jesse James (James Keach) is making plans to get married that Cole Younger (David Carradine) thinks is a bad move.  Mainly because they’ve got the tenacious Pinkerton Detective Jacob Rixley (James Whitmore, Jr.) on their trail and he’s vowed to bring in the gang dead or alive.  The problem is that Rixley’s men are bungling incompetents who manage to kill everybody else except the men they’re supposed to be after.  But Rixley gets his chance when he gets word that that the gang is planning to rob the bank at Northfield, Minnesota.  It’s a robbery destined to end in horrifyingly blood-soaked carnage and after it’s over, the James/Younger gang will never be the same.

In between we’re treated to some pretty cool shootouts and great acting.  David Carradine steals the show as Cole Younger who is wonderfully badass in this movie.  He has a terrific knife fight with Sam Starr (James Remar) the husband of Belle Starr (Pamela Reed) a whore who Cole is more in love with than he’d like anybody, especially Belle to know.  Pamela Reed is also so good in this one you wish she’d had more screen time but trust me; she makes the most of what she’s got to work with.   It also doesn’t hurt that she’s flat out gorgeous to look at.   James Keach does some interesting things with his characterization of Jesse James where he sometimes comes off as not being quite human in his dealings with other people.  Stacey Keach is the better actor of the two and I think it was generous of him to step back and let his brother play Jesse, who has more lines and more screen time than Frank.  Dennis Quaid doesn’t have much to do in this movie so don’t look for a lot of him but his brother Randy carries the load for them both.  He has a terrifically funny scene where he sits down next to a group of musicians playing “The Battle Cry of Freedom” and with a big friendly grin and an even bigger gun advises it would be better for their health if they play “I’m A Good Ol’ Rebel” instead.

So should you see THE LONG RIDERS?  Chances are if you’re a fan of westerns and/or Walter Hill like me you’ve already seen it.  But if you haven’t and you’re wondering what you should put down on your list of movies to Netflix, add THE LONG RIDERS to that list.  It’s a terrific western with great shootouts, outlaws who look damn cool in ankle-length dusters, train robberies, a grimly wry sense of humor and wonderfully authentic looking atmosphere.  Enjoy.

 

Rated R

97 minutes