Dust to Dust

Walter Hill’s browned-out Westerns.

Last Man Standing

Directed by Walter Hill

New Line Cinema

After the first few minutes of Walter Hill’s Last Man Standing, there is little doubt we’re in the presence of a master director. In one of those stirring, low-angle, archetypal shots, the no-name hero (Bruce Willis) puts his hat on and saunters along a wooden porch to face his adversaries. It’s the era of Prohibition, but the setting is Jericho, Texas, a baking, dusty ghost town 50 miles from the Mexican border, so this might as well be a Western, and he might as well be a gunslinger. The bad guys had barely a reason for provoking him, and he has barely a reason for drawing first blood, but the question is not really why he’s going to blow them away but how–and how, more importantly, 62-year-old Hill can prove, in this age of John Woo and Quentin Tarantino and straight-to-video action hacks, that he can stage and shoot a gunfight so that we sit up in our chairs and salute.

The battle is over before you can exhale. The hero’s pistols blaze white in the foreground; a bad guy is up and rolling and tumbling–in motion that’s three-quarter-speed–through the obligatory plate-glass window, into the distance, onto the street, his body bleached by sun and chalky dust so that he passes into history before even coming to rest. In action sequences, Hill gives us pure, pinwheeling motion, but without Woo’s cartoon weightlessness. The man behind The Warriors, The Long Riders, Southern Comfort, and 48 Hours can still rock the house. What he cannot seem to do is make us give a damn.

The film is a remake of a classic, the 1961 Akira Kurosawa “samurai Western” Yojimbo (itself based on Dashiel Hammett’s Red Harvest). But works we now call “classics” were often blasphemies in their own eras. In Yojimbo, Kurosawa goosed the old-style oater while dragging it–divested of piety, spurting blood–into a godless, post-nuclear age. Grunting dyspeptically, the samurai hero (Toshiro Mifune) arrives in a crumbling frontier town where two rival gangs have plundered the populace. After selling himself as a bodyguard to each mob in turn, he concludes that both sets of bad guys would be better off dead–and sets about making it so. The samurai has a code of honor: He puts himself at risk by liberating an innocent young woman and his barman confidante. But gruffly. Not since Jacobean tragedy had a good guy been so conscienceless in the face of carnage.

Kurosawa’s nihilism might seem more shocking today if it hadn’t become so common. It’s the tone of most contemporary “urban” Westerns, whose heroes are nominally good but are basically as brutal and sadistic as the villains. Now, after the totemic slayers of Clint Eastwood–who starred in the first Yojimbo remake, Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars–and the faceless automatons of Steven Seagal, the most startling films are the ones where we care about who’s getting blown to smithereens.

In Last Man Standing, we don’t much care; Hill is too busy crafting a classic to pull us in. Apart from those high-impact action scenes, he leeches the movie of immediacy. The bootlegging mobsters are dapperly dressed, but the colors are brown and white with the odd splotch of orange and, after a while, you feel as if the dirt is getting into your head. Hill’s early urban thrillers were hyper-bright, with gleaming shards of color; in Western mode, he goes for smudge, for diffused light, for characters viewed through wavy glass or windshields streaked with filth. The distancing made some poetic sense in his last film, Wild Bill, where the hero had glaucoma and the drama was memory. Here, the movie just seems to happen behind a brown scrim.

I >t was daft to cast Bruce Willis as Smith, the soldier of fortune hiring himself out to each gang in turn and one of Hill’s standard monosyllabic mystery men. Willis doesn’t have a mythic presence, and his poker face is his least prepossessing attribute. He’s an amiable wiseguy, with a talent for shrugging off his own heroics. Nothing in his personality links up with the quicksilver mastery that’s on display here. To give himself the semblance of a character, he lowers his voice to a rasp–a move that backfires when Christopher Walken shows up with an even deeper rasp and a brogue besides. Willis is out-rasped. In their final showdown, the mystery is that they can hear each other.

Walken is Hickey, a psycho who sports a runny eye scar that makes him look as if he’s wearing a flesh monocle. (Donald Pleasence had one as Blofeld in You Only Live Twice.) As always, his post-Method perversities are fun to watch, but Walken has played this clammy monster so many times that he’s turning into a big-budget Freddy Krueger. When his gang gets it, you don’t hoot and holler, perhaps because Hill isn’t a sadist–he’s too honorable to stir the primitive bloodlust of the average action moviegoer. And anyway, Walken will be back mowing down more people next month.

For Hill, macho insularity is a dying virtue, and he can’t seem to penetrate those tired, opaque old archetypes. There are no significant women in his films, a fact that troubles me less on behalf of all those underchallenged female performers than all those underchallenged male ones. His heroes seem to have galloped out of Westerns; they seem not of women born. (The exception proves the rule. As co-screenwriter of Alien, Hill did provide a meaty, macho role for Sigourney Weaver–except that the character was written to be played by a man.)

His characters don’t mushroom into myth; they congeal into it, and his films congeal along with them. When he tries to make a genuinely meditative movie–and he tried like all get-out with Wild Bill–he demonstrates how little interior life his characters have. Wild Bill is an accomplished impersonation of a ruminative, first-person movie. It follows its hero into opium dens, relives his killings, soaks us in his losses. The aging protagonist (Jeff Bridges) has been striking heroic gunfighter poses for so long that even he doesn’t know what’s really in his head–he’s trapped by his own legend, forced to play his part until the past catches up with him. And this literary conceit is supposed to pass for tragedy!

Hill is probably the last person who should have remade the godless Yojimbo–his universe is too classical, too well ordered, too movie-made. Godlessness in action films means something else now. In Pulp Fiction, it’s capricious, accidental carnage, or a leading man killed suddenly in midstream who returns later in a syntactical sleight of hand. In Seven, it’s camera work that induces existential (and physical) nausea, and shootouts with scary slingshot angles and a chilling absence of motive. The paradox of Walter Hill is that he is at once the most thrillingly kinetic director in Hollywood–and the most old hat.