In the 1970s and early '80s, a Walter Hill movie had a very good chance of being very good. And very different from the previous Walter Hill movie.
In Hill's directorial feature debut "Hard Times" (1975), Charles Bronson plays a taciturn bare-knuckle brawler in 1930s New Orleans, whose partners are a debt-ridden gambler (James Coburn) and an opium addict, portrayed by an unusually subtle Strother Martin.
Not much story. Just enough. Folk tale minimalism in motion, the results remain as "tough as a nickel steak," to quote a line from the picture. Watching it today — I hadn't seen "Hard Times" since I was in high school — it's startling to encounter a plain, tough, well-made picture that doesn't do somersaults to get easily bored teenagers interested in its characters and their situation. Despite its focus on violent fist-to-fist and skull-to-skull combat, the film proceeds in a relaxed way, according to the rhythms of what might be called pre-on-demand-era pacing.
It's hack work. But it's hack work as put together by someone who is no hack. In flashes, Hill's facility with nasty, hot-tempered action comes back to life. In the relationship between the leading characters, Hill consciously evokes the odd-couple pairing of Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy in his "48 Hrs." But there's a more interesting reference point in "Bullet to the Head," one that takes Hill back to his first feature: Shot in post-Katrina New Orleans, "Bullet to the Head" features a scene photographed in a hollowed-out old power plant, the same shell of a building used in "Hard Times" a generation back.
The movie business is a series of loops and circles backward. Friday night in Evanston, at Northwestern University's Block Cinema, a screening of a rare 1932 pre-Code movie, "Wild Girl," will offer audiences a good, stiff drink of bootleg hooch. It's a Raoul Walsh movie (by genre definition a Western). Hill, who made "The Long Riders" and worked on "Deadwood," has long claimed Walsh as one of his favorites. Neither man is a flagrant stylist. Both, in their ways, are masters of vivid, efficient visual storytelling.
Even "Bullet to the Head" has its moments. If you're a Walter Hill fan.
In "Bullet to the Head," Stallone, 66, plays the Old Man with the Guns. Everyone calls him out as a relic, out of touch, though clearly the actor has invested a lot of money in maintaining his youthful everything, from the hair on down. There's a similar dynamic afoot in "Hard Times," in which Bronson (then in his early 50s) endures such wisecracks as "Hey, Pops! You a little old for this, ain't ya?" He's not, of course. And then the comeuppance commences.
Bronson, authentically weather-beaten, responded to the material with the cleanest, simplest and best performance of his career. Hill didn't treat him like a star. He used him, quietly, for all his squinty, granite-etched visual distinction, which is a different matter. It's what directors, good directors, can do given half a chance.
A while back Hill gave an interview to the greencine.com website, wherein the writer slathered the director with praise for "The Warriors," praise for "48 Hrs." and praise for "Hard Times," among others. Hill replied: "The fact that somebody still pays attention to something you were doing 25 years ago is kind of nice. Anyway, what the hell."