Not that long ago the video store was a mundane and sometimes obnoxious part of life; driving over to some lonesome strip mall with your friends or family to comb through the all-too-often disorganized shelves of your local shop, argue over a selection, and then be stuck with it, for good or ill. Yet, it was also sublime. And for those who lived during the true video boom, video stores also equate to another bygone commodity: VHS. When JVC’s Video Home System won the early-80′s format war, the motion picture market changed forever. The genre and B-movies that had previously filled drive-ins across the country now often went straight to VHS. Then DVD took the world by storm in the late-90′s. It was a brave new world, and sadly, many films never made the leap, trapped now on a dead format. These often aren’t “good” films, but goddammit, they were what made video stores great. For we here at CHUD are the kind of people who tended to skip over the main stream titles, our eyes settling on some bizarre, tantalizing cover for a film we’d never even heard of, entranced. These films are what VHS was all about. Some people are still keeping the VHS flame burning. People like me, whose Facebook page Collecting VHS is a showcase for the forgotten charms of VHS box artwork. With this column it is my intention to highlight these “lost” films and the only rule I have for myself is that they cannot be available on DVD.
Title: Extreme Prejudice
Genre: Gonzo Action
Tagline: An army of forgotten heroes, all officially dead. They live for combat. Now they’ve met the wrong man.
Released by: International Video Entertainment Inc.
Director: Walter Hill
Plot: Tough Texas Ranger Jack Benteen was at a time best friends with the sinister drug kingpin Cash Bailey, until fate turned the two men into bitter enemies on the opposite side of the law. To complicate matters, Jack’s girlfriend Sarita once went with Cash and the flame continues to burn bright. Meanwhile, a CIA-funded paramilitary Major leads an elite group of Special Forces soldiers, all declared dead by the U.S. government, on a “mission” to rob a bank in Benteen’s small border town to cover up a matter involving national security. This culminates into a bloody showdown at Cash’s compound across the Rio Grande where Sarita is being held as a semi-willing hostage.
Thoughts: Of all the gritty action masterpieces made by the great Walter Hill during the late seventies and throughout the eighties, this is in my opinion one of his most criminally underrated. Sandwiched between 86′s bizarre Ralph Macchio vehicle Crossroads and the Arnold Schwarzenegger/Jim Belushi buddy-cop flick Red Heat in ’88, I consider it, along with 89′s Johnny Handsome, to be his last two great films from this era. I saw it in its initial theatrical run at a multiplex back in the day and I’ve owned and watched the VHS dozens of times over the years. It is the master filmmaker’s most neglected work and an all-out love letter to one of his own biggest influences, Sam Peckinpah.
The film opens with an A-Team inspired introduction via military backgrounds of a zombie unit made up of elite mercenaries that have all been declared dead by the government so that they can be sent on classified missions throughout the world. They are all brought to a small Texas town right next to the Mexican border by Maj. Paul Hackett (Michael Ironside) to take part in a staged bank robbery that is cover for a matter involving the CIA’s war on drugs. Their target is a ruthless cocaine lord named Cash Bailey (Powers Boothe), who was once a resident of the town and childhood friends with the tough-as-nails Texas Ranger that maintains the law on his side of the border, Jack Benteen (Nick Nolte). The two share a somewhat friendly relationship despite the fact that they’re both sworn adversaries, as well as rivals for the affections of a sultry Latina mariachi club singer named Sarita (Maria Conchita Alonzo). All of these elements converge in an explosive finale that plays like a cross between The Wild Bunch and Scarface.
The cast is a rogue’s gallery of badass actors, including a lean, mean Nick Nolte in one of his finest performances ever. His Jack Benteen, which he modeled after real life Texas Ranger Joaquin Jackson, appears to be chiseled out of granite and Nolte somehow out-Eastwood’s Eastwood here. The brilliant Powers Boothe is equally incredible as Cash Bailey, the most charismatic scumbag you’ll ever meet. When we are first introduced to the character he crushes a live scorpion in the palm of his hand and I’ve read that this was done on one take. Pretty awesome setup for the bad guy, I must say. Then you’ve got the king of all intense actors, Michael Ironside as the leader of the special military unit. He does a typically perfect job as the commander with his own personal agenda in play. Rip Torn provides much needed comic relief in a wonderfully written character role as the Sheriff. His line, “Shit, Jack! The only thing worst than a politician is a child molester.” is one of many that are delivered with spot-on timing. The supporting cast of soldiers of fortune consist of (get this): Clancy Brown (!), William Forsythe, Matt Mulhern, Larry B. Scott (Lamar from Revenge of the Nerds in a much different role) and Deebo/Zeus himself, Tom ‘Tiny’ Lister as one of Cash’s hired goons. The only two actors missing in this ensemble are Fred Ward and Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb.
The reason this film works so well is not just because of the great action and wonderful performances, but also mainly due to a muscular script featuring some of the best macho dialogue ever written. You can probably credit a lot of that to the legendary John Milius, who came up with the story as well as the title, which derived from a line in his own Apocalypse Now. When Cash says to Jack early in the film, “I got a feeling the next time we run into each other we’re gonna have a killing.” I still get goose bumps.
Cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti provides some killer imagery of blasted Texas landscapes, faces drenched in sweat and slow motion bodies torn apart from machine gun fire. Everything looks sticky, dirty and uncomfortable while bathed in a beautiful orange glow from the ominous desert sun. You’ve also got another perfectly composed musical score from the great Jerry Goldsmith, who gives us a nice military meets the old west vibe.
This is an 80′s western that replaces cowboys and Indians with cocaine and Uzis. It crackles with energy from beginning to end and is one of my favorite action flicks from this time period. If the military bank-robbing subplot sounds familiar, that’s because it was stolen and used in Die Hard 2. I put this one alongside Hill’s other classics, like Hard Times, The Driver, The Warriors, The Long Riders, Southern Comfort, 48 Hrs., Streets of Fire and Johnny Handsome as one of his greats, but for some reason it’s almost completely off the radar.
Lionsgate released a DVD of this film back in 2001, but it’s a horrible pan & scan VHS dub that is of inferior quality. It has not yet been given the widescreen digital transfer it deserves and I cannot understand why a major company would continue to allow such a subpar product to be packaged and sold. I have both the original VHS and the DVD. I’ve compared them and the VHS looks and sounds better. This was once the case with Lionsgate’s release of Johnny Handsome, but that film was recently given a Blu-ray release following Mickey Rourke’s unexpected comeback with The Wrestler a few years back. I hope that one day the suits in charge will realize that this film needs to be given a first class presentation because it’s really worth it. I mean we’re talking about a Walter Hill film here.
Trivia note: Walter Hill fans will recognize that the character of Lupo played by Luis Contreras, who in the end takes over Cash Bailey’s Mexican drug operation, makes a cameo at the end of Hill’s Red Heat wearing the same style white suit Powers Boothe wore in the previous film. “Now you get to wear the white suit.”