Another time, another place.
Thus reads the opening title card of Walter Hill’s ‘84 rockabilly otherworld masterwork, Streets of Fire. An amalgamation of '50s greaser attitude and glam rock bravura, Streets is an action movie where the set pieces run a close second to the immersive nature of Hill’s universe. This brief opening statement of purpose could double as the writer/director’s design – a manifesto that defines a solid chunk of his filmography. Just like the cartoonish underbelly of NYC in his ‘79 street gang operetta The Warriors, the neon and rain soaked Streets wants to drown you in synths and the roaring engines of motorcycles and muscle cars, all while Diane Lane whips her hair as rock goddess Ellen Aim. Hill doesn’t give a shit about your reality; wanting to do nothing more than transport you to the polluted corners of his brain, where lone wolves like Tom Cody (Michael Paré) rule the wastelands he spills out onto celluloid. It’s pure, unsullied, tough guy fantasy.
Last Man Standing is a similar mash-up of disparate aesthetics; mixing ghost town, post-Leone noir with gangster film suits and Yojimbo/Dashiell Hammett combat politics (Akira Kurosawa even shares a story by credit). You can taste the dirt and dust that blows down the streets of Prohibition border town, Jericho. Ford Model A Coupes take the place of horses, as a newly minted Man With No Name (John Smith – played with characteristic iron-jawed stoicism by Bruce Willis) manipulates both Irish and Italian hoods against one another in a never-ending war for supremacy in Noweheresville, TX. Just as Hill’s ‘87 Modern Western Extreme Prejudice updated The Wild Bunch with the director’s trademark macho terseness, Last Man Standing is a movie all about razor sharp brevity, sweaty atmosphere and a shit ton of bullets. No one gets out of this town alive, as Smith’s dual hand cannons are fit to drop anyone whose corpse will earn him a fistful of dollars.
There’s a thin line between Jericho and Deadwood (for which Hill directed the pilot). But where HBO’s best series (that isn’t called The Wire) was steeped in Shakespearian soliloquies and Old West navel gazing, Last Man Standing’s sepia toned haunt is filled with Hill’s usual men of action. Outside of Smith’s breathy voice over and a few scenes of on the nose exposition, none of the ruffians who lay claim to this bootleg depot are keen to start jawing at one another. Hell, the plot (as much as the movie has one) kicks off over an exchange of glances, as Smith eyes up the beautiful “property” (Felina Lombard) of Irish clan chief, Doyle (Hill mainstay David Patrick Kelly), resulting in his goons smashing up the violent wanderer’s iron steed. Sheriff Ed Galt (a reliably cranky Bruce Dern) advises the stranger to slap on a spare and ride out of this Hellscape. However, Smith isn’t one to be chased off, opting instead to take the lawman’s other suggestion: get himself a firearm at the saloon run by Joe Monday (William Sanderson, promoted since his days working with Al Swearengen). War has come to Satan’s playground, and Smith’s about to make some bucks off of spilling bad men’s blood.
The gunfights that punctuate Last Man Standing fall somewhere between High Noon showdowns and Hard Boiled slow motion bullet ballet. Hill is absolutely having a ball during these explosions of ultraviolence, allowing his camera to swirl around the dueling gunmen, jittery and tense in medium/wide before remorselessly leering at blood squibs as dead men fly backward through the breeze. An early moment where Smith, in the coital embrace of a talky prostitute (Leslie Mann), dives off the lady and proceeds to mow down a squad of incoming mick murderers effortlessly encapsulates the (in this case quite literal) naked masculinity Hill is fascinated with exploring through hard individuals acting on their most primal instincts. Hill’s regular '90s cinematographer Lloyd Ahern (Trespass, Wild Bill) understands his director’s love of action kinetics and keeps the camera steady, while Ry Cooder’s guttural guitars slather the picture in the auteur’s usual whiskey and cocaine tinged adoration of rock and roll.
If anyone involved in Last Man Standing is having more fun than Hill, it may be Christopher Walken. Working like a bandito pulled out of a spaghetti western, crossed with an amoral deviant from one of his collaborations with Abel Ferrara (though certainly more The Funeral than King of New York), his red haired, mythical artist with a Thompson is the movie’s monstrous highlight. Saying very little before spraying whole rooms with lead, Walken relishes every moment he gets to exude menace onscreen. It’s yet another stellar reminder of how much glee an actor can get out of playing a pitiless psycho, and Walken greedily chomps into the role of a boy who burned down his orphanage (naturally with all the other children still inside). A mere squint of his mangled eye is enough to give viewers nightmares.
Pacing might be Hill’s only true misstep with Last Man Standing, which is rather aberrant for an author who normally gets in and out of scenes in record time. The director’s usual love of dissolves and fidgety transitions (not to mention a Kurosawa wipe or three) are all present and accounted for, but the constant turn-coating John Smith pulls between Irish and Italian gangs begins to grow tiresome in the back half of Act Two. Thankfully, Hill brings it all home with his usual muzzle flair, making sure we feel every last gunshot and spray of blood as redemption proves to be just out of reach for approximately everyone involved.
Recently, Alejandro González Iñárritu commented that he didn’t want his latest film, The Revenant,to be labeled a Western, because (and I’m paraphrasing) he associates “genre” with being “generic”. All due disrespect to Mr. Iñárritu, he’s either never seen a Walter Hill movie, or his head is lodged so far up his own ass that the sphincter muscles are cutting off the air supply to his memory banks. Because Hill boils down the basic tenets of several genres until all that’s left is a batch of elemental emotions he’s allowed to rearrange as he sees fit. When combined with his absolute love for scenery chewing character actors (Michael Imperioli gets honorable mention for his squawky Chris Moltisanti precursor), what results is another ballad of bullet-riddled machismo, rife for stylistic dissection and contextual (both historical and auteurist) evaluation. What sets Last Man Standing completely apart from Hill’s contemporaries is his persistent insistence on never letting the viewer leave the aura of this fly infested deathtrap behind until long after its brusque 101 minutes have come to a close. Another time, another place – indeed. This is Prohibition purgatory, only there’s no option to ascend to Heaven. The Devil has come to claim us all, one adrenaline blast at a time.