"From the producers of Rambo, a thirty-million-dollar explosive action spectacle!" The advertising for Extreme Prejudice knows – or at least thinks it knows – its target audience well. Explosive action spectacles apparently need little media hype beyond a call-sign to Rambo (1985) fans. Extreme Prejudice received a sudden, efficient release in Australia. The assumption is that it will find its audience regardless of what film reviewers say about it.
This is not a bad assumption either, considering that the reviewer who thinks the contemporaneous Radio Days (1987) is an important cultural event might be expected to regard Extreme Prejudice as either insignificant, or below contempt, or possibly both. What could be more disgusting, more worthy of righteous liberal anger, than another gung-ho, militaristic, sexist action-spectacle?
But hold those horses: Extreme Prejudice is a Walter Hill film. Hill, director of 48 Hours (1984), The Warriors (1979) and Southern Comfort (1981), is right up there with America's most durable and inventive contemporary filmmakers. His Crossroads (1986), for instance, missed a big cinema release altogether in Australia and ended up only on video – where it is a must-see. If anyone is the victim of extreme prejudice here, it's Hill.
Almost every Hill film is a case of more-than-meets-the-eye. Working within the most well worn of Hollywood formulae, he has a habit of turning them completely on their head. Extreme Prejudice is an often brilliant, corrosive film. On the surface it is everything an action movie has to be – fast, tight, physical, densely plotted. But it is a film which, far from simply celebrating the rituals and systems of male power, plots a gradual process of breakdown and mutual destruction.
With a story in which every revelatory twist is crucial to the real message, it is hard to do this film justice without destroying in advance its immense narrative pleasures. But suffice to say it puts in play three super-powers. Two of them are old-fashioned, the third ultra-modern.
Jack (Nick Nolte) is the classic honest cop, a Texas Ranger. He is a man of few words and fewer facial expressions, but his impassivity hides a few niggly problems. Not the least of these is the fact that his lover, Sarita (Maria Conchita Alonso), seems to be rekindling her amorous interest in their mutual old friend, Cash (Powers Boothe).
Cash is an equally classic figure – the bright boy turned bad. A flamboyant and crazed Mr Big in a white suit, Cash commands a lawless drug empire in Mexico. Into the conflict between Jack and Cash, Hill integrates a Zombie Squad, a special security team of expert operations men, led by the creepy Major Hackett (Michael Ironside). Just who is after what and why is made clear only in the closing apocalyptic bloodbath – a homage to Sam Peckinpah which even outdoes the Master. Betrayed loyalties run very deep, and nobody really wins, although many die.
Extreme Prejudice shows that being 'in power' is a fragile and treacherous state indeed. Hill outlines all the mechanisms of social power, and traces the factors that inexorably destabilise them: chance, error, miscalculation, delusion, passion. His is a very bleak and untriumphant vision – about as far from the blind, militaristic patriotism of Rambo as can be imagined.
It is difficult to single out particular departments of the filmmaking process here for special praise, so interwoven are all the elements. But the editing, acting performances and music are sure to linger long in the memory. The movie is a model example of how to set up an atmosphere or a milieu that both feels authentic and is also evocative in terms of the director's expressive aims.
Extreme Prejudice is an extraordinary film. I saw it twice in two days on its initial release, and in subsequent years I have kept going back for more.
© Adrian Martin August 1987