Movies centering around a lone man standing up against insurmountable odds is about as old as cinema itself, from Westerns to cop dramas the stoic hero has been a staple of the film industry, but then in the 80s that simple concept met the action genre and that combo exploded onto the scene with the likes of Cobra, Predator, Escape from New York and The Road Warrior but one gem of that genre, which has often been overlooked, is Walter Hill’s action flick Extreme Prejudice, a film that was basically a salute to Sam Peckinpah and included a cast of some of the best badass actors in Hollywood.
What makes Walter Hill’s Extreme Prejudice unique in this often tread category is that we find ourselves in a story that is somewhat beyond your simple Gary Cooper type dynamic, with the hero standing up to face alone the arriving villains, because in this film we have more a less a triangle of antagonists. On the one side you have Major Paul Hackett (Michael Ironside) who leads a clandestine black ops group of presumed dead soldiers called a Zombie Unit, consisting of Hackett and five U.S. Army sergeants; Master Sergeant Larry McRose (Clancy Brown), Sergeant 1st Class Buckman Atwater (William Forsythe), Staff Sergeant Declan Patrick Coker (Matt Mulhern), Sergeant 1st Class Charles Biddle (Larry B. Scott) and Sergeant 1st Class Luther Fry (Dan Tullis Jr.) – you must admit that was one killer of a team – and then we have the white-suited drug kingpin Cash Bailey (Powers Boothe), who had moved to Mexico to work as a police informer but decided that being a drug baron, with his own personal army, was a better fit for his life goals, and finally, we have Texas Ranger Jack Benteen (Nick Nolte) who pretty much embodies the stoic taciturn lawman.
This cast of characters, all heading for a dynamite collision with each other, would be enough for most films but Extreme Prejudice isn’t just your standard action film as it also throws in the added wrinkle that Jack Benteen and Cash Bailey were once childhood best friends, who simply took different career paths – think The Third Man only with a lot more testosterone – but to complicate things, even more, is the fact that Jack’s current love interest, Sarita Cisneros (Maria Conchita Alonso ), was once Bailey’s woman which is an element that will, of course, make for an intense final showdown. It should also be noted that this was a good action year of María Conchita Alonso as she also starred in the Arnie action epic The Running Man, unfortunately, in this outing she briefly appears to be a strong woman, calling Benteen on his “I don’t want to talk” macho bullshit, but then when she hops across the border with Bailey and we are left wondering “Were those her only options, an emotionally distant Texas Ranger or a drug kingpin?”
When watching a Walter Hill film and expecting to find well-rounded female characters is like hoping to find a Dairy Queen in the middle of the Sahara Desert, it’s just not going to happen as with most of his films they are about macho swagger dickheads and women are either trophies or damsels in distress, or in this case, both. To be fair, this movie isn’t really about the love triangle between Jack, Cash and Sarita so we can’t get too angry with Hill’s thin depiction of the film’s sole female character, and sure, it would have been nice if the script gave us some reason for her decision to give up her life in the States to become a drug lord’s girlfriend, but Extreme Prejudice is all about tough men with big guns and even bigger attitudes. Walter Hill is also not one to leave out one of the best action hero clichés and thus Jack has a mentor/father figure in the form of Sheriff Hank Pearson (Rip Torn), who is brutally killed in an ambush set-up by Cash.
Much of the plot of Extreme Prejudice has to do with Michael Ironside’s character supposedly needing important documents located in a Texas bank which leads to him and his team staging a daylight bank robbery to retrieve them, which, in turn, leads to many “A-Team” moments as each member of the Zombie Unit performs various tasks to pull off their precision plan, of course, things go wrong and Nick Nolte stumbles onto the group and discovers that according to official files these guys are all “dead” American soldiers, but when he learns that they also want Cash Bailey dead he’s able to set aside the fact that bank robbing is still a crime, even if it was government-sanctioned, which in this case it wasn’t because, to a surprise to no one, Michael Ironside is a rogue agent with his own agenda. Who can blame Nolte for not passing up on the chance of crossing the border with a group of badass gunmen who can help him get his woman back and take Powers Boothe down?
It should be noted that the film was originally 45 minutes longer, with a large part of it dealing Michael Ironside working alongside CIA agent played by Andrew Robinson, as they set-up this big covert op, but after the first screening Hill realized his film was a bit lopsided, commenting “It looks like it’s starring Michael Ironside, with Nick Nolte, Powers Boothe, and Rip Torn supporting him, so we’re gonna cut the whole Andy Robinson side of the film out.” Much of the missing 45 minutes would most likely have made Ironside’s betrayal of his team a little less out of leftfield, then again, when you cast someone like Michael Ironside you don’t need a lot of backstories, basically, he was your go-to character actor when you needed a clear cut villain, and I’m sure Nick Nolte was happier with the end result.
Of course, this wonderful macho nonsense was all orchestrated simply to lead our cast of characters across the border to have a remake of that infamous final gun battle in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, and I must admit Walter Hill does not disappoint in that area and the shootout in Cash’s Mexican fortress is all that action fans could ask for and more, all in shot in gloriously blood-soaked slow-motion, but what makes this film stand out from many of its contemporaries is Hill’s exuberant directing style and a cast of really great actors. Extreme Prejudice may have been poured out of the same mould as the classic Western but Walter Hill infused the genre with some high octane car chases, explosions and shootouts that will keep viewers at the edge of their seats and then bring it all back to basics with a high noon face-off between the hero and the villain.
Michael Ironside brings the perfect amount of mystery and menace to his role as a crooked CIA operative but it’s Powers Boothe who truly steals the show as the evil yet wonderfully charismatic drug lord, and you can truly buy that he and Nolte were once best friends, which makes the ending if not tragic at least a little sad. Cash was a pretty despicable human being and deserved to get filled with lead but his ultimate fate still left you a little off-center and much of that comes from how fun it was to watch Boothe in the part. Extreme Prejudice may have come from the same mould that brought us the like of The Dirty Dozen and The Wild Bunch but at its heart, it’s basically Gary Cooper from High Noon up against Harry Lime from The Third Man and somehow that mix works perfectly here. If you haven’t seen this Walter Hill classic do yourself a favour and track it down, you won’t regret it.
Extreme Prejudice (1987) – Review
Movie Rank - 7.5/10
Walter Hill’s Extreme Prejudice may be bursting at the seams with testosterone in a landscape of full guns and guts, where women are relegated to being something between a sex object and piece of furniture, but with this stellar cast and Hill’s artful direction somehow we are still left with one helluva entertaining flick.