Director Walter Hill is 80, so unless he releases something really good real quick, his best-known directing effort will be the 1982 Eddie Murphy-Nick Nolte action comedy. 48 hours. It would be a shame because the film, while great, is not Hill’s finest work. His cult classic from 1979 The Warriors is better off movie, and 1978 The driver is the best car movie you’ve ever seen. But it’s his westerns – the hard work dead for a dollar notwithstanding – which earned him a place in the ruling firmament. His most notable westerns, such as the HBO pilot dead wood and the 1980 drama The long ridersgalloped into town on a familiar-looking horse, and their laconic frontier energy and outbursts of violence deftly split the difference between respectful tradition and bold revisionism.
In dead for a dollarNor does Hill revisit the visual extremes he flirted with in 1995. wild beak nor does it honor its mentor, director Sam Peckinpah, with ballet-like brutality rendered in slow motion. Where Hill seems to be going, other than nowhere quickly, is revealed in a closing credits page that reads: In memory of Budd Boetticher. An underrated B-movie director who was briefly a matador in Mexico before turning to acting, Boetticher is best known for his Old West dramas starring cowboy icon Randolph Scott, including those from 1957. The Big T and 1960s Comanche Station. His films were simple in style but more psychologically deep than you might think.. Boetticher once summed up the appeal of the western by saying “a man has a job to do, or a couple of men. They try to do it against all odds. They do.” And that brings us to dead for a dollarabout a bounty hunter named Max Borlund who has a job to do, and he does.
Borlund, Randolph Scott’s replacement in the film, is played by a stoic and ill-adjusted Christoph Waltz, his trademark twinkle and smirk erased by the pressures of being a man of honor living in 1897. Borlund was hired by “a prominent businessman” Martin Kidd (a very good Hamish Linklatuh) to find his wife, Rachel (Rachel Brosnahan), who was kidnapped by the buffalo soldier Elijah Jones (Brandon Scott). Jones has a three-week head start on all pursuers, but Borlund is assigned another buffalo trooper named Alonzo Poe (Warren Burke) to help with the search.
Speaking of which, if this all sounds like a riff on ResearchersHill, who co-wrote the dead for a dollar script with Matt Harris, don’t bite the bait. In fact, it barely nibbles there, which leaves some promising social commentary on the table. A handful of scenes are given to Elijah and Poe, which Hill mostly squanders by assiduously skirting the racial issues of the time. Only Poe’s brief whipping fight has a sting, as a black man turns a weapon of torment on his white tormentor. Rachel is doing better. She’s a stern-looking teacher with a derringer whose ultimate motives give her some agency, though Brosnahan can’t find much nuance in it.
The film’s visuals are captured on a John Ford-approved widescreen, which means plenty of, so beautiful, boilerplate shots of the endless plains. Otherwise, its look is Boetticher-simple but too digitally smooth and lacks grain. Many interiors look like mint stage decorations. Blocking the final shootout sees Borlund mostly standing in open areas never getting shot. This high noon-style climax provides high contact of double-barreled violence, although we don’t care what happens to anyone at all.
Indeed, rarely has so little tension been generated by a hero with so many villains lining up to kill him. Willem Dafoe has a good old time as Joe Cribbens, a Texas horse thief locked up by Borlund five years earlier. Their opening confrontation suggests that he is the film’s main villain. Instead, the boss fight pits Borlund against Mexican BMOC Tiberio (Benjamin Bratt, also having fun), whose forward man, Esteban, is played by a perfectly cast Luis Chávez. Hill generously moves these chess pieces as alliances change and lies are uncovered, allowing everyone to reveal or recover their morality, including Mexican authorities, who rarely do well in Westerns. But if Hill is revisionist, then we have to redefine the word because most characters come and go, live and die, as needed, instead of pushing particular boundaries.
In the end, Hill fulfills his duties as a man for hire in dead for a dollar, just like Max Borland is a man for hire in Mexico. Hill lent his lean, masculine style to a surprisingly diverse number of films, including Richard Pryor’s 1985 comedy Quotes, Brewster’s Millionsand the sci-fi dud of 2000 Supernova (which he left in post-production and whose name was removed from). But bringing so little to the genre it’s most associated with is particularly disappointing. As Hill, the Emmy-winning producer of the 2006 Western miniseries broken path once told, “Actors of old used to say that if you had the right horse and the right hat, the rest was downhill.” With Hill’s dead for a dollar, this turns out to be false. Although he might want to take note of the part about the descent.
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