Extreme Prejudice (1987; Walter Hill) is much more than an exciting, uber-macho, testosterone-drenched, breathlessly-paced, grimy and sleazy slam-bam action flick directed by one of the grandmasters of the genre with a cast of the roughest, toughest B-listers around—
it’s a thriller that goes far beyond simplistic the white hat/black hat rhetoric prevalent in the 1980s, and has bubbling under the surface a serious contempt for “cowboy politics” that show no respect to the laws of sovereign foreign nations—or our own.
Considered a western by its producers, the flick touches upon more “contemporary” themes like paranoia about a shadow government, and conspiracy theories about secret wars being fought at home in the name of “National Security.”
While not quite a contemporary Zapata Western, Extreme Prejudice is definitely the Revisionist Western “turd in the punchbowl” for the gaggle of “America, Fuck Yeah!” Reagan-era US power fantasies, especially the knuckle-headed “might makes right” propaganda of Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Chuck Norris from that time.
The political undertones of Extreme Prejudice were scoffed at back in the day by mainstream critics (lily-livered fools!), but now appear especially relevant.
As Texas Ranger Nick Nolte is gearing up to bring down local drug lord—and former childhood best friend—Powers Boothe (a man so tough, he crushes scorpions in his bare hands; jeez, what shenanigans did young Nolte and Boothe get into?), a “zombie squad” of officially-listed-as-dead soldiers arrives in town on a similar mission.
But in addition to killing the renegade dope kingpin, the secret military unit, lead by Michael Ironside (snarling deliciously), is there to cover up its involvement in the drug trade….
While not as overtly political as films like A Bullet for the General or The Battle of Algiers, where characters are literally shouting, “Revolution! Revolution!”, Extreme Prejudice is hardly subtle: The drug war has corrupted everyone it has come into contact with, especially Boothe and Ironside’s characters—and the economy is crap, so the dope peddlers are never short of people to work for them.
Meanwhile, the “zombie squad” is as fine a metaphor as anything for sneaky and disruptive US foreign involvement, and the fact that it all “comes home” really resonates in our post-9/11, post-maximum-government-Bill-of-Rights-killing-shenanigans reality.
In fact, the Zombie Squad (jeez, I love that phrase—if I was a musician, that would’ve been the name of my band—and as we all know, all good bands should be named after or inspired by movies where people died) only complicates matters and creates more of a mess.
After all, they are interfering with an ongoing police investigation and the efforts of local law enforcement.
Nolte and Boothe were going to square off anyway; the Z-Squad’s showing up only increases the body count and hassles for Nolte’s reticent and obdurate Texas Ranger.
The Zombie Squad and what it represents (as fun as they are for an action-junkie audience to watch, especially sleazeball William Forsythe and the grim Clancy Brown) are worse than useless, they are idiotically destructive.
And then there are the obvious parallels to those shameful Latin American death squads, usually made up from military or police units, that always acted in “the greater good.”
The film ends with all the modern Americans dead except Nolte (a man acknowledged by many in the film as a dude “out of his time”—and certainly not in sync with “what Washington wants” anyway).
And if that’s not political, I don’t know what is.
The cast is great, but standouts are Rip Torn’s irascible, foul-mouthed sheriff, and Powers Boothe as the always-in-a-white-suit drug lord: the actor is, I think, channeling Orson Welles playing Kurtz from Heart of Darkness—a reference I don’t think is completely off the mark, considering the connection between evil-yet-highly-financially-renumerative-but-ultimately-soul-corroding jobs like ivory trading and the dope smuggling—
and especially since Extreme Prejudice’s story is credited to John Milius, who transported Conrad’s novella from 1880s Congo to 1960s Vietnam for Apocalypse Now.
Milius touched upon US-based death squads previously in his script for Clint Eastwood/Ted Post’s Magnum Force, and personally, I feel that he has been one of the most consistently political of filmmakers, but his blustering Right Wing-ism and crazed machismo has unfortunately prevented “critics” (and other wussies) from treating his work seriously.
While he absolutely worships and celebrates Teddy Roosevelt-style “manly heroics” bordering on Zen warrior obsession, Milius’ films—especially The Wind and the Lion and Rough Riders, both underseen and underrated—are hardly kowtowing to the myth of Yankee moral superiority.
Regularly Milius’ films bring more history—even the ugly kind—and political thought to the screen on a percentage basis than most other American filmmakers: He routinely points to money as the reason behind 99.9% of political maneuvering, and his movies champion the heroics despite the base, ulterior motives which pushed our (in Milius’ universe, always honorable) protagonists into action.
Even Milius’ Conan the Barbarian (1981) has a political strand of a sort: Thulsa Doom is a caricaturish stand-in for cult leaders like Charles Manson or Jim Jones. (Synchronicity alert: Powers Boothe first big role was playing Jim Jones in the excellent—and for some reason still unavailable for home viewing—CBS mini-series on the psycho-guru’s life, Guyana Tragedy.)
Credited to Deric Washburn (co-writer on The Deer Hunter, Silent Running and others*) and Harry Kleiner, from a story by Milius and Fred Rexer, and probably given a major polish by director Hill, himself no slouch in the screenwriting/rewrite department,
the film’s script is much denser than usual for a Walter Hill film, and at first seems like it was staple-gunned from two different scenarios, as if The Wild Bunch crashed into Duel in the Sun.
(Some have called Extreme Prejudice—a.k.a. “Nick Nolte Vs. the Zombie Hitmen”?—a tribute to Peckinpah films, and aside from the obvious parallels to The Wild Bunch, I would make sure to add The Killer Elite at the top of that list—the Zombie Squad are absolutely the brothers of the contract killers from that 1974 movie: the soldiers are dumb-ass hillbilly shlubs who finally realize that they’ve been lied to the whole time.)
Thankfully, the two villains, though they know and worked with each other, never meet in the context of the film. I think that would lead to the type of exposition-overburdened “confrontation” scene that too many 1980s action flicks get saddled with; Extreme Prejudice already brushes against self-parody with its macho hijinks, and that might push things completely over the edge.
One of this movie’s joys is that, like all great B-movies, it takes what it is doing seriously, with absolutely zero self-reflection or snark, never recognizing the potential ridiculousness that its almost generic title screams out.
Luckily, the flick winds up as tough and tight as such a confrontational phrase like “Extreme Prejudice” could be. (While Milius popularized and introduced to the public the line “terminate with extreme prejudice” with 1979’s Apocalypse Now, it had been around for a while before that…)
But what’s on screen gets bound together by the blood-splaaaaaaaaaattered conclusion, interlocking the elements and really bulwarking the film and its philosophies:
Hill’s politics in Extreme Prejudice are quasi-conservative/semi-Libertarian: Let us real men alone in our natural environments to fight these things out! As Rip Torn’s grizzled old school lawman grumbles at one point, “The only thing worse than a politician is a child molester.”
If anything, it’s the influence of greedy and bureaucratic control-freaks that leads to things getting out of balance, the movie seems to indicate: These D.C. desk jockeys wipe out millions of jobs with the stroke of a pen; then give unfair advantage to the “bad guys” solely to line their pockets.
As for the peons (the rest of us in other words, and I include Nolte’s civil-servant in this group), they can go screw.
Hill doesn’t say there shouldn’t be rules to live by, or that the active, loner lifestyle isn’t the best, but that there should definitely be balance, with a “live and let live” overtone in place.
Extreme Prejudice deserves to be on the shelf next to director Hill’s other “political” thriller, the excellent and very intense Southern Comfort (also starring Powers Boothe, and a flick I need to get around to owning one of these days—Xmas is around the corner…).
Released in 1987, I didn’t catch Extreme Prejudice in the cinema during its original release, and I wish I had: the film was (for some inexplicable reason) only released in pan-&-scan on both VHS and DVD. While I hate that, there is one good thing: The “larger” image of pan-&-scan increases the film’s obvious grain, and makes the flick feel even more sleazy—as is the film technically is tops, with some incredible, neo-subliminal editing—
but I’d still like to see it widescreen: Hill’s compositioning is underrated, and he knows how to use the frame very well.
Until 1987, I’d done my best to see as many of Hill’s films in a hardtop as I could, but I didn’t see Extreme Prejudice that day because I’d just graduated from college, and had little money and was looking for a job—just like now…
Remember Readers: VOTE!!! (with extreme prejudice…)
(* = now that’s an eclectic career!)