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September 10, 2002

Walter Hill


I made a rather discouraging pilgrimage to a local multiplex last night. I went to see "Undisputed," a film co-written and directed by the once-great Walter Hill. Unfortunately, it was like paying a visit on an old friend and being shocked to see how far downhill they’ve gone since you saw them last.


Walter Hill first burst in upon my consciousness in 1979 with a TV ad for his movie, "The Warriors." My roommate and I were so pumped up by the ad (hey, we were 25) that we literally ran several blocks to a local theatre to catch the next showing.

"The Warriors" was a weird brew of a movie--a disco-era remake of Xenophon's (431-354 B.C.) "Anabasis." (For those of you unfamiliar with your Classic literature, this is the true story of ten thousand Greek mercenaries, including our author, who, having signed on with the Persian Cyrus to help take the throne from the emperor Artaxerxes, end up stranded a long way from home by Cyrus’ death and have to fight their way out against a series of foes.)

In “The Warriors,” the Greek mercenaries have become a Coney Island street gang, summoned to a pan-gang conference in the Bronx (conducted under a turf-war truce) in which gang-leader Cyrus’ vision of taking over the city is short-circuited by his assassination. When the assassination is blamed on the Warriors, they become the target of all the other gangs whose turf lies between the Bronx and home.

On the one hand, the movie is a series of action movie set-pieces of increasingly kinetic violence as the Warriors—refusing to remove their gang insignia—run or fight their way past hostile gangs. On the other hand, the movie, shot largely on city locations—grafitti-sprayed playgrounds, the subway, Central Park, Coney Island, etc.—also functions as a sort of nightmarish documentary of 1970’s crime ridden, bankrupt, neon-lit, disco-decadent New York.

The same artistic strategy of using real city locations as backdrops for action-movie gymnastics is applied to the actors. Our heros, while directed to give highly stylized, strike-a-pose, ultra-tough-guy performances as they confront one blood-chilling opponent after another, also come across as believably teen-aged: scared, stupid and full of the redeeming adrenaline-and-hormone charged energy of adolescence.

“Undisputed,” in regrettable contrast, is a tired, middle-aged, improbable fantasy that takes off from the adventures of Mike Tyson (famous boxer convicted of rape and sent to the big house.) The movie spends a good deal of time on the Tyson character, here called Ice-Man, and on the gripping question of whether or not he is actually guilty of rape. Unfortunately, we never really find out who to believe before the movie suddenly loses interest in the whole question.

undisputed 2.jpg

I bring this piece of “extended character development” up only to point out, that like most of the film, it is just window dressing. Ice-Man is really a walking plot device, brought onstage so that we can see the climactic boxing match between the him, the undefeated World Champion and our hero Monroe, the undefeated prison champion.

There’s a great deal of implausible manipulation of the prison system by Peter Falk as an aging Jewish gangster to bring the desired match about, but the less said about that the better. Sorry to spoil the ending for you, but Monroe, the reclusive, modest, self-contained, artistic (he’s a wizard at patiently assembling toothpick buildings) champ wins. Gee, who could have guessed that would happen?

When I got home, and tried to explain the movie to my wife, I found that I kept misremembering the film’s title as “Uncommitted.”

So what explains the sad decline of Walter Hill’s efforts from one movie to the other? Walter Hill reminds me of Hemingway, who wrote some terrific short stories about young men on the verge of adulthood, scared to death and trying to mask it by striking manly poses…and who wrote some terrible books about adults who had been around the block and could share their precious adult wisdom with us.

I think Walter’s inner artist is a teenage man-child, struggling to make sense out of the world while in the grip of essentially childish ideas about what it means to be a Man. Unfortunately, the adult Walter seems to pick movie projects that “illustrate” these childish ideas of masculinity and don’t allow his vivid childhood fears about being dumped into a scary world to come into play.

Naturally, the result doesn’t work at all on an artistic level. Walter’s brilliant fight sequences in “The Warriors” (each of which carefully built up tension and then released it in choreographed ballets of violence) degenerate in “Undisputed” into incoherent brawls, shot with hand-held cameras fitted with long lenses and edited together into music-video mish-mashes. (There is actually one shot that is nothing but a camera waving around wildly; the camera operator never actually finds the actor he is looking for.)

Without any progression from establishing shots to close-ups, from environmental stimulus to psychological reaction, the scenes lack coherent spatial organization and thus any particular sense of physical or emotional significance. The whole movie looks, and feels, like an exercise in throwing “stuff” at you—pseudo plot, pseudo setting, pseudo character development, pseudo-documentary footage—so you won’t notice that it has no inner conviction, no fire, no artistic reason for being.

Near the end of “The Warriors,” after an eye-opening night of navigating a far larger, if scarier, world than they ever dreamed of, one of the teenage gangbangers from Coney Island remarks that “it’s all out there. All we have to do is find a way to steal it.” In “Uncontested” the hero (who’s in jail for life without possibility of parole—defeated, in short, before he can even get in the ring—explains that all boxers will eventually lose a match, and that the best you can hope for is to stay on top “for a while. Be the best.”


For years I’ve thought that Walter Hill could be the best, could make one of the great films in world cinema—hell, maybe the greatest film in world cinema—if he would focus on his true subject matter, young boys in a tough scary world. But until he starts to serve his inner artist, the movies he makes will be like the stories of old prize-fighters: rambling, incoherent, and soaked in nostalgia for the days when they were still up-and-coming.

A recent interview with Walter Hill, here. And a short biography of him, here.

(Boy, do I not want to EVER be a movie reviewer; that's tough work when you're writing about a bad movie.)



posted by Friedrich at September 10, 2002


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