This weekend, writer/director/producer Walter Hill has a new movie in theaters. Bullet to the Head stars Sylvester Stallone and Sung Kang and, although he didn’t write it, it’s the first movie Walter hill has directed in 10 years. Matthew Lloyd is a Walter Hill aficianado and was excited to put together this list of badass characters that have appeared in Hill’s films over the past 48 years. If you have a Top 10 you want to write, email me at email@example.com. Here’s Matthew Lloyd:
Action filmmakers are like any other artists they have specialties. No one could better stage a gunfight then John Woo in his prime. John McTiernan had a knack for constructing believable characters in unbelievable situations. Paul Verhoeven infused his flicks with biting social satire. American filmmaker Walter Hill is a little bit different. What makes Hill great is a little harder to quantify. His movies are lean, mean man-on-a mission films, and their success lies in a very ethereal trait. Walter Hill’s movies are cool. They may not have the best stunt choreography, explosions, or chases scenes, but they exist totally in the sublime of coolness. With that in mind, and in celebration of Hill new film Bullet to the Head, we count down the Top 10 coolest cats in the Walter Hill canon.
10. Christopher Walken as Hickey in Last Man Standing (1996)
Last Man Standing is, like many Walter Hill films, an odd specimen. A borderline surreal composite of spaghetti westerns, classic gangster flicks, Kurosowa samurai films, film noir, and over-the-top John Woo gun battles, audiences didn’t really know what to make of it upon its release. Too action packed to be a meditation on violence, but, frankly, too depressing to be a fun adventure movie, critics couldn’t tell what tone Walter Hill was trying to establish. Thankfully, Christopher Walken did.
Standing is a loose adaptation of Dashiell Hammet’s Red Harvest, the same book that inspired Kurosowa’s Yojimbo, and the film finds two gangs at war in deserted town with a nameless gunman in the center of it. Seated at the right hand of gang leader Doyle (David Patrick Kelly) is his personal enforcer Hickey. The problem with trying to make a film with an ever-changing tone is that it’s hard to direct a consistent performance, and most of the cast either plays their roles to cartoonish levels or underplays them into a boring dead pan, but Walken is too good of an actor to let a little thing like eclecticism get in the way of his performance and he skates Hickey’s character through the ever changing tone with gusto. Walken goes from violent to threatening to casual to humorous all while maintaining a vocal cadence that’s just plain fucking weird, but somehow it all works. Staring down the gunman in a town littered with corpses we find Hickey throwing down his Chicago typewriter and commenting with a smirk, “I don’t want to die in Texas. Chicago maybe.” He fits into this universe like a glove and damn, it’s cool.
9. Steve McQueen as Doc McCoy in The Getaway (1972)
Doc McCoy should probably be higher on this list, but points have been docked for not actually having been directed by Walter Hill. 1972’s The Getaway remains a sort of apex in cool guys getting together to make a cool movie. With Hill writing the script, noted badass drunkard filmmaker Sam Peckinpah directing, and the irreplaceable Steve McQueen as Carter “Doc” McCoy. Throughout The Getaway, McCoy gets to do all manner of tough-guy activities from robbing a bank, getting into car chases, karate chopping a con man unconscious, and decimating a cop car with buckshot. Topping off the proceedings is a climatic shoot-out the reminds us all that there wasn’t enough hobo wine in the world that could keep Sam Peckinpah from directing the shit out of a gun fight.
However, the real reason Doc makes his way onto this list is McQueen, who plays McCoy with equal parts badassery and surprising sensitivity. The Getaway has some cool action, but its foundation lies with the relationship McCoy carries with his wife (Ali McGraw) throughout the film. Steve McQueen looked cool holding a shotgun, but he also knew how to play up his soft-spoken voice and steely blue eyes. The kind of a man who could hold you gently in his arms while you got lost in his longing gaze, drifting through that endless stare… I’m sorry. What were we talking about again?
8. Charles Bronson as Chaney in Hard Times (1975)
In Hard Times, Walter Hill’s debut feature about bare-knuckle street fighting, Charles Bronson plays the lead. If you can’t understand why that last sentence is amazing, then we will just never see eye to eye. In 1972, Hill was just about to start a career on stoic bad assess, while Bronson career as one was coming to a close. The stars aligned, the tides were turned, and a sweet movie was born. When most actors try to play the cool action hero, they lay it too thick; too outlandish. They become a parody in and of themselves. Bronson knew his craft well though. He plays the part with weight and silent fortitude. Bronson’s Chaney exists as a legend. He walks in and out of his own movie with little fanfare, as if he floats from town to town as a legend. Damn that’s cool.
7. Powers Boothe as Cpl. Hardin in Southern Comfort (1981)
Most of these entries require two paragraphs. This one needs two words. Powers Boothe. Actually three words. Powers Fucking Boothe.
6. Amy Madigan as McCoy in Streets of Fire (1984)
Streets of Fire is actually kind of a dud on the part of Walter Hill. It’s still quite entertaining, but while so much of the Hill catalog is effortless in its awesome, Streets of Fire is guilty of the cardinal sin of uncoolness. It tries too hard. One aspect of this fault is leading man Michael Pare, who lays on the action movie bravado a too thick and the film suffers, thankfully Amy Madigan is there to bring the film up a notch. Madigan plays McCoy (watch the video at 2:20), who tags along with Pare’s Tom Cody. Pare plays up his shtick, but Madigan is the real rough-and-tumbler on display. While the rest of Streets of Fire plays like a neon-lit musical, McCoy keeps us grounded. She is tough, resourceful, and handy for a good right hook. It’s odd when the lady playing backup is the leading man the film actually needs.
5. The Lizzies in The Warriors (1979)
This will probably be the most controversial entry on this list for three reasons. One, its listing a whole gang as one person. Two, it’s not the most popular of the gangs in The Warriors, that would arguably be the Baseball Furies. Three, there is a controversy surrounding the idea of the Lizzies as an example of negative gay stereotypes, the Lizzies being the only all female gang in the film and “lizzy” being a slang term for lesbian. However, this list is not about what characters were more intense or scary, this list is about being cool. The Lizzies were many things, but most importantly they were cool.
While every gang in the city ran around in face paint and spandex, the Lizzies just crashed in street ware. Lounging in their super sweet pad, while they toked and listened to Genya Raven on their super sweet, neon-lit jukebox. Sure they didn’t have the presentation of their male counterparts, but they were one of the few gangs in the Warriors universe that were smart enough to own a damn gun. Ask anyone worth their weight in cool and they’ll tell you, there is nothing cooler than being effortlessly cool.
4. & 3. Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy as Jack Cates and Reggie Hammond in 48 Hrs. (1982)
Like peanut butter and jelly, you can’t just have one without the other, especially if the peanut butter is the true originator of the “I’m too old for this shit” police officer, and the jelly is a radically slick comedian in his prime … I’m not good at similes. That doesn’t change the fact that Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy have never been sharper then when they worked together on 48 Hrs., the first and quite possibly the best buddy-cop movie ever made. They place together on this list because the strength of the film relies on their relationship, which always feel believable. If one were to hear the idea of another film about the street-wise hustler meeting the buckled down take no shit hard ass, they would be liable to groan, but to them I say give 48 Hrs. another watch, you’ll know why that trope came into being. When it’s done well, it’s pretty damn cool.
2. Michael Beck as Swan in The Warriors (1979)
You know what’s cooler than a hero? A reluctant hero, a person rising to a challenge despite the fact that they were never meant to in the first place. The idea of a person who will take up a cause or the good fight or simply claw their way to survival, when it wasn’t their job to do so is a powerful figure. That is a character that directly appeals to both the ideals of celebration of heroism and rooting for the underdog. If you’ve seen Die Hard, The Thing, or Pootie Tang then you know what I’m talking about.
Swan is chosen as the leader of the Warriors simply by being next in line after the implied death of their leader. He takes the job, but with little idealism. He wants his gang to bop their way back to coney. He doesn’t want to be the “warlord” he is assigned to be. He just wants to get home. Walter Hill’s character rarely evolved significantly in his films, but they still change in subtle but significant ways. Through Beck’s keen performance we do see Swan evolve from a fighter into a leader. His story is mythic in nature, and that is what makes him cool. If you’ve read the Greek legend Anabasis, heard the tale of the Native American hero Sigu, or seen the film Pootie Tang, then you know what I’m talking about.
1. Ryan O’Neal as The Driver in The Driver (1978)
The mayor of downtown coolsville is bar none Ryan O’Neal as The Driver in… wait for it, The Driver. What is his actual name? It doesn’t matter, for he is too cool. What is his past? It does not matter, because he is just that cool. Why does he exclusively wear dark suits? See answers one and two. The Driver has been named as one of the coolest movies ever made by the likes of Edgar Wright and Quentin Tarantino, and for good reason. The quiet, nameless protagonist had been around for decades before, but the character was never as pure as it here.
The Driver is uncut badass, a smooth operator that kicks ass with few words and little fanfare. This film and Barry Lyndon are sad reminders that Ryan O’Neal didn’t make it out of the 70s with a lustrous career, but his role as the Driver remains a force of nature. Fans of Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive and Tarantino’s Kill Bill saga take note. The Driver isn’t just cool, he’s Walter Hill cool.