Extreme Prejudice is a criminally underrated and underappreciated film that has improved considerably with time. It was pretty much lost in the macho action movie shuffle in the late 1980’s, seemingly unable to compete with the empty headed adventures of Schwarzenegger, Segal, Stallone et al. One immediately notices its difference by the decision to cast Nick Nolte as the stiff and stoic Texas Ranger Jack Benteen. Nolte is a hard man here, dangerous and ruthlessly violent, he prefers direct physical confrontation over discussion. When one considers that his most recent roles included Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), Grace Quigley (1985) and Teachers (1984) one can see that Nolte was very much being cast against type. To say he does an excellent job is something of an understatement. If Extreme Prejudice possesses one thing that separates it from the other action films being made at the time, it is in the superbly convincing performances. The cast also includes Powers Boothe, Rip Torn, Michael Ironside, Maria Conchito Alonso, and Clancy Brown. A beautiful ensemble of solid character actors who are clearly deeply committed to the material. If the cast isn’t enough to whet your appetite the film was directed by Walter Hill, with a screenplay co-written by John Milius. This is macho action movie heaven, and I for one enjoyed every minute.
Like Extreme Prejudice Walter Hill is also a vastly underappreciated writer and director. Hill is an incredibly consistent and efficient maker of genre films. Although he has explored a number of genres, it could be argued that all of his films are essentially westerns. His principal influences such as John Ford, Howard Hawks, Sergio Leone and most notably Sam Peckinpah would seem to reinforce this. He is perhaps best know to fans of cult cinema for The Warriors (1979), but my personal favourites of his are The Streetfighter (1975) with Charles Bronson and James Coburn, Southern Comfort (1981) and the film under discussion here. One of the pleasures of Extreme Prejudice is the way it combines a complex twin narrative, with a clear, concise and no nonsense method of filmmaking. The first narrative deals with a mysterious military outfit led by Major Paul Hackett (Michael Ironside) and their efforts to rob a bank in a border town in Texas. The second deals with the relationship between the law enforcing Texas ranger and his former best friend Cash Bailey (Powers Boothe) who has turned to the dark side and built himself a drug empire which he defends with a small army. To complicate their already tense relationship the two adversaries are still fighting over the heart of Sanita (Maria Conchito Alonso). The symbol of their division is the border that separates the two countries, and Benteen knows that in order to resolve the criminality that is encroaching into his territory he will have to make a trip into the lions den.
The border tensions signify this is a modern day western, and this is reinforced with some magnificent shoot outs, and a wonderfully laconic turn by Rip Torn as the Sherriff who has seen it all and offers advice to the slowly fragmenting psyche of Benteen. His early demise robs the film of an emotional core which the film struggles to replace. The twin narratives intersect in delightful little ways until the inevitable moment of revelation that Hackett and his experts are a CIA funded operation brought in to eliminate Bailey who has reneged on a deal. But these are relationships fraught with deception and subterfuge and with so much testosterone floating around the suspense builds. The film concludes with a superb showdown on the Mexican side of the border which evokes the heroics of William Holden's band of loveable cutthroats in The Wild Bunch (1969). Here we get to see the decadence and greed of Bailey, who in a departure from conventions bedecks himself in white rather than black. Powers Boothe puts in a fine performance as the sleazy and greedy drug dealer, whose posture and attitude is in direct opposition to Nolte’s taut coiled spring. They are so different that one marvels that they could ever be best friends, but the opposing choices they have made has created a border between the two that can never be breached.
© Shaun Anderson 2011