Every Walter Hill Movie, Ranked

Movies Lists Walter Hill
Every Walter Hill Movie, Ranked

“Directors don’t retire,” Walter Hill told me in the lead-up to Dead for a Dollar’s release, the 23rd feature film in the 83-year-old director’s career. “Every old director I’ve ever known, and I’ve known a lot of them, was always looking to do another movie.” That’s the truth for Hill, who even in his early days as a screenwriter on films like The Getaway and The Drowning Pool was waiting for his chance to get behind the director’s chair. Once he got his first shot, with 1975’s Hard Times, he kept his feet moving, developing a reputation for a quick and efficient style that has influenced countless filmmakers in the decades since.

Walter Hill has repeatedly said that all of his films are Westerns, something which can be seen in his motifs of good versus evil and streamlined narratives with characters fighting to preserve their moral codes. His work has grit, an edge that doesn’t shy from the harsh truths of the world, along with a penchant for what he describes as the “physical courage” these (mostly) men will employ to succeed—or sometimes just survive. Within that traditionally machismo realm, however, Hill has a nuance and dimensionality to his work that confronts patriarchal norms, examining broken men and the unjust society their moral failures have wrought. Even specifically within the Western itself, Hill’s work has more often than not deconstructed and criticized the genre’s mythologized American exceptionalism rather than upheld it.

Alongside his prolific work in cinema, Hill has been responsible for a number of successful projects in television. He spearheaded HBO’s Tales from the Crypt series, won an Emmy for directing the first episode of Deadwood (before a fallout with creator David Milch led to Hill’s exit after that premiere) and picked up another trophy for the 2006 miniseries Broken Trail, which he directed to a total haul of four Emmy awards. He was also instrumental in launching the Alien franchise, and has even written an acclaimed graphic novel called Triggerman—that medium being a longtime passion of Hill’s.

“All directors, if you hang around long enough and you’re lucky enough to stay at it, you’re gonna have some hits probably and you’re gonna have some misses,” Hill stated at a time in his career where he had already experienced his share of critical highs and lows, including several films that received dismal notices upon release but would go on to massive cult success in the decades following. 

In my conversation with Hill, he told me, “I used to have a saying with my old writing and producing partner, David Giler. He had this definition of a bomb and a dog. A bomb was a movie that commercially did not work. A dog was a movie that was just no fucking good. The thing, of course, to be avoided at all times was a dog-bomb… I don’t think any of mine are dog-bombs.” It’s a credit to the director that in the 50 years of being in the big chair, he’s maintained a remarkably consistent level of passion and expertise in the craft.

With that in mind, I’ve taken on the assignment to be the driver. To take the crossroads for a task that has taken far more than 48 hours—hell, not even another 48 hours could cover it. In a task whose difficulty is undisputed—and could be met with extreme prejudice, but hopefully not a bullet to the head—I’ve lit up a supernova onto the streets of fire and ranked every feature film directed by Walter Hill, from worst to best.

Here is every movie by Walter Hill, ranked:

23. Madso’s War (2010)

Let’s get this one out of the way immediately, as its inclusion on this list could be seen as a bit nebulous. For starters, calling it a Walter Hill film isn’t exactly true, as his name was removed from billing and the director is credited as “Rob Marcus,” who does not exist. Details are scarce on this one (to this date less than 100 people have even marked it as watched on Letterboxd), so there’s nothing documented as to what went down to facilitate Hill’s name being excised. Beyond that, the bigger wrinkle is whether one would consider it a film at all. That’s not a dig, necessarily. Madso’s War was, by all accounts, shot as a TV pilot for Spike TV. It didn’t get the greenlight to series, but instead of it folding into the many discarded remains of abandoned pilots that have never seen the light of day, Spike decided to release it instead as a 90-minute TV movie. You can still watch it on Tubi! 

You might not want to, though, as the experience is one that very clearly illuminates why even Spike TV thought this didn’t cut the mustard. Matthew Marsden stars as Madso Madden, a small-time Boston crook whose crew embeds themselves in the middle of a power struggle between corrupt cops and the Irish mob. We’ll never know how the planned series would have developed, but these specific 90 minutes are a slog where we’re introduced to every single person who has ever occupied a seedy bar with a phony Boston accent before heading back to homes surely adorned with Rounders and The Boondock Saints posters. Marsden pours on the narration over top of stock music interludes from one establishing shot to the next, with the series presumably hoping to, at best, be called a knockoff of The Shield. Realistically, it’s closer to a bargain bin version of an already sketchy program like NBC’s The Black Donnellys

22. The Assignment (2016)

Walter Hill wasn’t the first esteemed filmmaker to wade into the waters of “trans identities as shock factor sleaze” when he saddled up for 2016’s The Assignment. Legends from Alfred Hitchcock to Brian De Palma to Jonathan Demme have brought us features whose murky representation will continue to be litigated as long as discourse can be discoursed. For Hill, it was all about leaning into the sleaze on this one. “I liked its audacity, and its potential to be… this always sounds patronizing, but a kind of really terrific B-movie. You know, the kind of movie that doesn’t get much love when it comes out, but you love watching it on TV years later, much more than you do the ‘big’ movies of the day,” he said of the story, which he first discovered as a 1978 Denis Hamill script titled Tom Boy that Hill optioned the rights to. Hill wrote up the project as a graphic novel, having just had success releasing his own, Triggerman

That sensibility shows in the film, which charts two different timelines as Sigourney Weaver’s maniacal plastic surgeon Rachel Jane, now institutionalized, recounts the story of how she conducted gender reassignment surgery on hitman Frank Kitchen (Michelle Rodriguez) as punishment for Frank killing Rachel’s brother. It’s a pulp thriller in every sense, with Hill even infusing scene transitions with comic book splash panels similar to what he did with the director’s cut of The Warriors many years prior. 

Stylistically, it’s one of his most accomplished works of recent years, but unfortunately a lot of that gets lost in the shuffle with the execution of its narrative. Moving past the questionable handling of its trans themes—the idea here that being in a body different from the one you were born in could be a punishment and the worst thing to do to someone—its emphasis on this purely as shock value clouds the lurid thrills that could be obtained from its knowingly B-premise. Simply put, the hammer-hitting sight of Rodriguez kitted out with a goofy full beard and giant prosthetic hog waving in front of the camera elicits more groans than entertainment.

21. Another 48 Hrs. (1990)

Walter Hill set the standard for the buddy-action comedy in 1982 with 48 Hrs. (more on that later), but the only sequel of his career left a lot to be desired. Already pressing relevancy by arriving a whopping eight years after its predecessor, Another 48 Hrs. was put up against the wall in production with a tight schedule: Going from start of principal photography (without a finished script) to release in less than six months. With nearly five times the budget (a decent amount of that going to Eddie Murphy’s boosted salary), the film earned twice what the original did in theaters and became the director’s highest grosser, but what audiences found was a garbled mess whose cobbling together was so chaotic that a whopping 25 minutes were cut out of the movie a week before release

The big hook for Another 48 Hrs. is that Murphy’s just-released convict Reggie Hammond and Nick Nolte’s cop Jack Cates essentially swap roles, with Murphy now the straight man and Nolte’s screw coming totally loose. That ballooned cash flow allows for Hill to exercise his action muscles with numerous sequences of vehicular mayhem that get the blood pumping well enough, but the plot—revolving around Cates fighting off a manslaughter charge while also trying to save Hammond from a hitman known as “The Iceman”—feels decidedly like something written on the fly that lazily rehashes what worked in the original. Doing promotion around Another 48 Hrs.’s release, Hill stated that “I’d always said I didn’t think a sequel was a very good idea… I kind of thought the tale was told.” His first instinct proved correct. 

20. Crossroads (1986)

Music is often an important fixture in the films of Walter Hill, often thanks to his many collaborations with composer Ry Cooder, though rarely has it been as central as in 1986’s Crossroads. A play on the Faustian myth of blues musician Robert Johnson selling his soul to the Devil in order to create his music, the film stars a fresh-off-KarateKid Ralph Macchio as a teenage blues fanatic who embarks on a quest to find Johnson’s famed “missing song.” He enlists the aid of Johnson’s old friend Willie Brown (Joe Seneca) and the two hit the road. There’s a bit of a mustiness, a yearning for an energy that isn’t quite there, as Crossroads never amounts to the sum of its parts. A miscast Macchio isn’t able to gel with Seneca’s bizarrely horny, rampantly misogynistic elder, with the two clashing as perhaps Hill’s oddest “odd couple.”

The most interesting, and most surprising element of the film comes in its understanding of the cultural roots of the blues—how music is another field where white Americans have appropriated the work of Black artists and used it for their own profit. In that sense, Crossroads hews closer to The Cotton Club’s reckoning with this legacy than La La Land does. This is certainly an oddity among Hill’s oeuvre; it’s likely the film that sticks out the most like a sore thumb when considering his career at large. Its most lasting legacy comes thanks to its climax, where those supernatural undertones come to the surface in a ten-minute guitar duel between Macchio and Whitesnake guitarist Steve Vai. Truly a sequence that must be seen to be believed.

19. Supernova (2000)

One imagines Walter Hill would balk at the premise of even including Supernova on a list of his films, as he quit the project after MGM went forward with test screenings that Hill advised against because the effects work wasn’t complete. The official director credited on the project is the pseudonym Thomas Lee, who could really be seen as a composite of a few different filmmakers. Per Hill’s prediction, the screenings went disastrously. The studio brought in director Jack Sholder, who essentially ripped apart Hill’s version. When Sholder’s version also didn’t test well, the studio went back to Hill, who said he’d need $5 million for reshoots. He was refused, and then came in Francis Ford Coppola to try and tie it all together. Coppola’s alterations included, among others, adding in a sex scene between stars Angela Bassett and James Spader by superimposing their faces onto the bodies of Robin Tunney and Peter Facinelli from footage of a totally different sex scene with those two actors—this included darkening Tunney’s skin tone to look like Bassett’s.

It’s tough to say how much of Hill there actually is in Supernova; it’s likely not much. There was an additional metric ton of calamitous developments throughout this production before and after Hill was involved. Realistically, a whole book could (and should) be written one day on the disastrous production of Supernova but the thing is… it’s not that bad. It’s essentially an Event Horizon riff with a stacked cast (Robert Forster and Lou Diamond Phillips are also here!), and it’s impressive that after all of the nonsense behind the scenes—with studio meddling up and down the block—that the final product is watchable, period, let alone moderately competent. Get a bunch of talented and beautiful people in an enclosed space, make some wacky sci-fi shit happen and get an entertaining bit of cheese out of it. Who knew! 

18. Johnny Handsome (1989)

“It’s not the kind of film one does because you think it’s going to advance your career,” Walter Hill said of Johnny Handsome, a neo-noir thriller about a facially disfigured criminal (Mickey Rourke) who is sent to prison after being double-crossed by his partners (Ellen Barkin and Lance Henriksen). There he is recruited by a surgeon (Forest Whitaker) to be a guinea pig for an experimental surgery that will reconstruct his face and make Johnny unrecognizable to anyone who knew him before. Once released back into society, Johnny links back up with his betrayers under a false identity and plots his revenge. Hill wasn’t wrong. Johnny Handsome didn’t take off critically or commercially, but it remains a fascinating little piece of pulp with a delectable cast: Alongside Rourke, Barkin, Henriksen and Whitaker, Morgan Freeman plays a cop who sees through Johnny’s ruse and Elizabeth McGovern plays Johnny’s love interest.

“It’s gotta go a lot deeper than that,” HIll continued. “It’s the kind of film you do because you somehow connect with it all and you really wanna tell that story.” One can imagine the idea of dismantling yourself, starting over from scratch with a whole new identity while remaining true to your inner core is a concept that could resonate quite well with a filmmaker—especially one whose career has been as varied as Hill’s. Johnny Handsome ends up being more of a curio than an outright success, a melting pot whose ingredients don’t quite fuse together. It takes a little while to kick into gear as it maneuvers all of its pieces into place, but Barkin is a firecracker and I won’t be the first to point out the intriguing irony of Rourke playing a character whose life changes when his face is restructured to look more conventionally attractive—when soon his career would go the opposite way after he embarks into the boxing world.

17. Bullet to the Head (2012)

Not to be confused with John Woo’s vastly superior Bullet in the Head, Hill’s first feature in ten years (since Undisputed) adaptated a French graphic novel. It was leading man Sylvester Stallone, riding the post-Expendables wave, who brought Hill into play after original director Wayne Kramer left the project due to creative differences (re: Kramer wanted to go much darker; Stallone wanted something more accessible). Having just had a string of potential projects fall apart, Hill was, in his words, “just sitting at home reading magazines and looking out the window” when he got the call. 

There is a sensation in Bullet to the Head that Hill’s heart isn’t fully in it, but it does contain several of his trademarks. Stallone and Sung Kang are yet another dysfunctional odd duo, a hitman and a cop paired up to take down a common enemy. There’s not a lot of life in the performances, with the chemistry between the two especially lacking, but the biggest hindrance to the film is its script: At one point, Kang pulls out a cell phone and Stallone deadpans “Oh, you’re one of them phone guys?” It’s a little tough to watch.

Despite an irksome script, many of the action scenes show Hill still has the juice. An early brawl between Stallone and Jason Momoa in the bathroom of a dive bar is absolutely fantastic, as is the climactic ax-fight which is a clear callback to Hill’s debut feature Hard Times (even shot in the same warehouse!). Plus it’s the only film where you can see Stallone and Kang mask up for an Eyes Wide Shut-style sex party run by Christian Slater.

16. Red Heat (1988)

A film that could only exist in the ‘80s, Red Heat pairs Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jim Belushi as—you guessed it—a dysfunctional pair of buddy cops going after a drug lord in Chicago. The big hook here, if you could guess by the title, is that Schwarzenegger is playing a Russian and Belushi an American, ensuring this Cold War action bonanza is jam-packed with every Russian joke in the books. Written by Hill primarily as a reason to work with Schwarzenegger, which they had been wanting to do for some time, it’s refreshing to see how the director utilizes his leading man, wanting to give him more stoicism to work with as opposed to the hulking wisecracker the actor was primarily being billed as. It’s admirable to have Schwarzenegger play things so straight, although Belushi doesn’t bring enough energy to counteract this, leading to a “mismatched duo” action-comedy where the duo isn’t that mismatched.

That said, Red Heat is absolutely worth the watch for the first 15 minutes alone. We’re gifted the sight of Schwarzenneger in a bathhouse with an onslaught of nude bodies, penises being the only things covered up, and these by delicately placed white towels that resemble loin cloths. In a following scene, the actor forcibly removes a man’s prosthetic leg to reveal a copious amount of cocaine hidden inside. (This is apparently the only scene Hill likes, and it’s easy to see why.) On Belushi’s side, we’re introduced to his character by watching him speculate to Larry Fishburne over whether or not a sex worker’s breasts are real. As I said, it couldn’t get more ‘80s than this. A shame that Red Heat doesn’t maintain this wild energy for the remainder of its runtime, though the bonkers climax does pick the pulse back up. 

15. Dead for a Dollar (2022) 

His most recent feature at the time of publication, Dead for a Dollar sees Walter Hill in the place he’s always longed to call home: the Western. The film is dedicated to his old pal, The Tall T director Budd Boetticher, as in the editing room Hill felt that Boetticher would have been fond of this one. “It’s low-budget, it’s out in the middle of nowhere,” he explained to me. “It’s people dealing with ethical, moral situations and codes and what’s proper conduct. It’s a debate on that subject punctuated by acts of courage, and acts of cowardice in a couple of cases.” 

Dead for a Dollar threads the needle between traditional Westerns of Boetticher’s ilk and the more revisionist sensibilities that Hill brought to the genre in the run of them he made in the ‘90s. We get expected moments like a climactic showdown between bounty hunter Christoph Waltz and his old nemesis Willem Dafoe and there’s a bouncy score from first-time composer Xander Rodzinski that keeps things light on its feet, but it’s also laced with these subversive explorations of race (including a pointed, magnificently staged duel involving bullwhips) and gender in the wild west that make it more interesting than a straightforward homage to the old standards. As much as he loved diving into the traditions of the form, things could never be as simple with Hill as black hat vs. white hat. 

The biggest hurdle for Dead for a Dollar is an aesthetic that’s giving mid-2000s network TV pilot, which is incredibly jarring. But hey, there’s a scene where Willem Dafoe shoots a bunch of cockroaches with a naked lady in bed behind him. What more do you want?

14. Last Man Standing (1996)

“This is such a sad, lonely movie,” is how Roger Ebert put down Last Man Standing in his one-star review. One might wager that’s exactly the point. A remake of Akira Kurosawa’s seminal Yojimibo (credited as such, unlike Sergio Leone’s remake A Fistful of Dollars, which got hit with litigation), Hill’s take on the material was to get down and dirty, ramp up the stylized violence and ramp down the charm of Toshiro Mifune’s leading man. The director employed Bruce Willis to take up his stead, allowing the actor the rare opportunity to get subdued and nasty when he rolls up into a Prohibition-era Texas town and lands smack in the middle of a gang war. 

Many, including Hill himself, would argue that no one really needed another remake of Yojimbo, but Last Man Standing distinguishes itself in a few ways. For starters, it’s one of Willis’ finest performances, the actor honing in on Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum as inspirations for this noir-tinged portrayal of a bad man taking advantage of even worse ones to make out with a profit. Second, while composer Ry Cooder made plenty of magic with Hill across their many collaborations, this was his greatest achievement: A knockout piece of aural poetry that hits exactly the right beat in every moment, sinking you into this blood-soaked town where the dust kicks off the ground and seeps into every breath you take. Finally, Last Man Standing is an undeniable testament to Hill’s mastery with an action sequence; the hotel shootout in particular is a standout amongst his filmography in terms of sharp cutting, resonant sound design and sheer badassery.

13. Undisputed (2002)

The title Undisputed is now mostly associated with Scott Adkins’ franchise of MMA titles that go direct-to-video and have garnered quite the fanbase. (When asked if he’s had anything to do with the sequels, Hill responded, “I have not, and they probably owe me money.”) Linked by brand recognition only, the series began with this Walter Hill boxing feature, pairing convicted rapist George “The Iceman” Chambers (Ving Rhames) against convicted murderer Monroe “Undisputed” Hutchen (Wesley Snipes) in a bout behind bars. The prospect of Snipes v. Rhames in big bright lights in 2002 gives the impression of Undisputed as a major summer blockbuster that would rake in $100 million, a sports picture to pick up the slack of the at-the-time nascent Rocky franchise. 

Surprisingly, Undisputed isn’t as interested in the in-the-ring physicality of boxing as it is the capitalistic enterprising behind the scenes. The action is appropriately lean and mean, with Hill making the most out of his slender $20 million budget, but the most compelling character in the piece is Mendy Ripstein, an incarcerated mob boss who sees the lucrative potential of a Chambers v. Hutchen battle and maneuvers to make things happen. Played by a 70-year-old Peter Falk with the gusto of a man half his age and twice his size, holding court, telling stories about Meyer Lansky and the heyday of his gangster life, Falk is a force to be reckoned with and highlights how Undisputed shines a light on the mechanics of prison life. Hill clearly had an interest in the nature of sports entertainment as well, filming the picture in a sort of docu-drama, VH1 Behind the Fight style with a 2.35 aspect ratio that boxes us in with the prisoners. It packs a punch quite unexpected from what you think you’re getting on the tin.

12. The Long Riders (1980)

While Walter Hill likes to say that every film of his is a Western, it wasn’t until his fourth feature—1980’s The Long Riders—that he made his first entry into the genre in terms of its era and setting. What a way to get your proper start, telling the tale of the James-Younger gang. The big hook for The Long Riders was its unique casting of actual brothers in its primary roles. Not only did James Keach and Stacy Keach star as Jesse and Frank James, respectively (the duo also originated the project and co-wrote the script), the cast was loaded with a whopping four sets of brothers, ensuring that if the characters here were siblings then so were the actors playing them. Many would be tempted to call it a gimmick, but really it’s just smart casting that pays off beautifully. Without having to get too deep into the nuts and bolts backstories of these characters, we already have a sense of the bonds and rivalries they share with each other when we’re dropped into their world after they’ve become legendary outlaws.

Despite this being Hill’s first foray into a genre often punctuated by its action, and telling a tale of a hardened gang whose exploits have been the source of many a cinematic ballet of bullets, The Long Riders was arguably his most dialogue-driven film to date. It stripped away a lot of the steely gazes and taciturn men from his first few pictures and gave us richly detailed interpersonal dynamics in the James-Younger gang and the men and women circling around them. That’s not to say it’s without any bloodshed. The Long Riders hits on a lot of the most notorious pieces of James-Younger lore, including a marvelously executed portrayal of the Northfield holdup, and the “don’t that picture look dusty?” bit of elegy in which Charley Ford (played by none other than Christopher Guest!) executes Jesse James. 

The most memorable moment of the film though, even more so than the casting of brothers in all the roles, is a scene where David Carradine (as Cole Younger) and James Remar (as Sam Starr) fight each other in a bar with enormous Bowie knives and a piece of cloth in their mouths to keep them close to each other. It’s unforgettable, and as Hill told me, it was also filmed the day that Samuel Fuller visited set.

11. Brewster’s Millions (1985)

The seventh film based on George Barr McCutcheon’s novel of the same name, Hill’s adaptation of Brewster’s Millions comes from Trading Places screenwriters Herschel Weingrod and Timothy Harris. As far as marketing goes, this is the only straight-up comedy in the director’s filmography, though it was raked over the coals by critics who essentially stated that it wasn’t funny. “A screwball comedy minus the screws,” is how Janet Maslin described it in The New York Times. Even Hill himself has more or less written it off, chalking it up to an artistic failure that made money, which was ultimately the reason he did it in the first place. 

That Brewster’s Millions isn’t a bucket of laughs is precisely the reason why it works. In this day of increasing awareness that the richest members of our society not only horde their wealth when they could solve problems for so many in an instant, but actively harm the majority simply to line their pockets out of nothing but utter greed…well, the concept of a minor league baseball player inheriting $300 million if he can manage to spend $30 million in 30 days without attaining any material goods for it or telling anyone why he’s doing it somehow doesn’t scream hilarity. 

What Brewster’s Millions does do, however, is reflect the sheer absurdity of the wealth divide in this country (or any country) by reminding us over and over the kind of ruthless, nonsensical games the rich participate in for their own sick delight. The absolutely impossible labyrinth of red tape that’s been built up to ensure their boots remain on our necks at all times, whether we know it or not. 

After missing out on casting him in 48 Hrs., Hill finally collaborated with Richard Pryor here in a performance majorly influenced by the actor’s heavy cocaine addiction. Pryor “didn’t believe that he was funny unless he took drugs, and he believed that if he took drugs he would die,” according to Hill. The manic energy provided by the actor fits the morbid tone of the picture, which is sapped of laughs apart from some delightful line deliveries courtesy of John Candy. Brewster’s Millions is arguably a failure as Hill’s only comedy, but as a sharp slice of social commentary? It’s due for a reappraisal. 

10. Geronimo: An American Legend (1993)

For a director whose heart has always been rooted in the Western genre, it’s impressive how Walter Hill’s Westerns consistently come from a place of critical revisionism towards the Hollywood standard of American exceptionalism. That’s never been more potent than in Geronimo: An American Legend, a film that feels like a eulogy for a country that was trampled out by white men’s violence. The film takes place during a period where the Apache have agreed to settle on a U.S. government reservation, but adapting under these confines becomes a struggle, particularly for Geronimo. Eventually, the deception, broken promises and marginalization inflicted upon the Apache becomes too much and Geronimo leads the charge to push back.

Hill shrewdly packs the cast with iconic American names like Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall, along with a very young Matt Damon in a crucial role, but they all pale in comparison to a sensational Wes Studi, one of our finest actors, as Geronimo. There’s a resoluteness, a determination to him that never wavers, yet his face shields so many burning emotions being stifled for one reason or another. Geronimo is given plenty of opportunities to neglect the spirit of himself and his people to cater to the whims of the colonizers, but he never relents, even knowing what fate awaits him as a result. There’s nuance here in the dynamics that form between Geronimo and some of these white men, particularly someone like Charles Gatewood (Jason Patric), who ostensibly is on Geronimo’s side yet still wields a white privilege that can only allow his compassion and understanding to go so far. If anything holds Geronimo: An American Legend back from being higher on this list, it’s that it spends a little too much time in Gatewood’s perspective (he’s ostensibly the lead, despite Studi having the title character). 

9. Wild Bill (1995)

Along with his revisionist kick, the ‘90s saw Walter Hill launch into a lot of formal experimentation, prominent in Wild Bill’s bizarrely shifting filming styles—jumping from color to black-and-white, with certain scenes looking like they were filmed through a pinhole camera that had been run over a mile of gravel. It likely contributed to the film’s middling critical reception and dire commercial performance (grossing $2 million on a $30 million budget), but in a way it suits the film’s revisionist lens, showing how the fixture that is Wild Bill isn’t what the dime novels mythologized him as. “Wild Bill is essentially the story of a guy who has the choice between a reasonable life and living the legend,” Hill said. “He chooses to live the legend, but he’s torn about it.” 

While The Long Riders was Hill’s Jesse James movie, it’s actually Wild Bill that shares a closer kinship with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, observing a man who resents his infamy because it’s led him to a position where those who don’t even know him—the lawmen who want him brought to justice, the fledgling outlaws who worship him, and the nobodies who want to take him down to make a name for themselves—already have an opinion about him. Jeff Bridges exquisitely captures this roaming, morose existence, this juxtaposition between the stature of an icon and the elegiac crawl towards death that we follow him on. 

It’s also a bit of a hoot for meta reasons, as we’re seeing fixtures that Hill would later revisit in the pilot for Deadwood, where Keith Carradine does his own tremendous interpretation of Wild Bill. Carradine, a Hill regular, is here as well, playing Buffalo Bill Cody, while Ellen Barkin is a wonderful Calamity Jane. David Arquette not so much as Jack McCall.

8. 48 Hrs. (1982)

48 Hrs. didn’t invent the buddy cop action-comedy subgenre (most sources would credit that to Richard Rush’s James Caan and Alan Arkin starring Freebie and the Bean from nearly a decade earlier), but it was certainly the one to launch a wave of imitators in the decades to come. There would be no Lethal Weapon, no Bad Boys, no Rush Hour without this unlikely pairing of serious dramatic actor Nick Nolte and Saturday Night Live upstart Eddie Murphy, the latter in his debut film role. That’s right, watch 48 Hrs. and come back to the realization that this was Murphy’s first movie. Then figure out how to get your jaw off the floor. Originally positioned by Hill as a pairing of Clint Eastwood and Richard Pryor, after years of development, it would end up being Hill’s future wife Hildy Gottlieb who would recommend Murphy and cinema would change forever.

The setup is simple: Nolte’s cop releases Murphy’s convict on parole in order to help him catch a criminal. Hill knew that was all you needed to make this work, because the trick was to lean into the personalities that these two stars bring to the table, and boy do they bring it. Murphy’s performance is one of the true star-is-born moments in film history, with him shooting out like a rocket the second he’s introduced. Look no further than the scene at the redneck bar—where Murphy masquerades as a cop and completely owns the room—to instantly recognize that this man would become one of the greats. His exuberant charisma pairs marvelously with Nolte’s exacerbated racist asshole schtick. 

At this point, we’ve seen the interracial buddy cop dynamic done plenty of times, yet something still feels remarkably fresh about 48 Hrs.. That’s in part due to how the “one of them is Black, but the other one is white!” hook is actually rarely played for laughs. Hill knew the trick was to not hit the hammer too hard on this element, instead letting it naturally flesh out from these characters and how they interact with the world from their lived experiences. The film never shies away from the thornier elements that develop in this story, refusing to be sanded down by studio notes to become something more palatable for mainstream audiences like Beverly Hills Cop would be. There’s something that stings about 48 Hrs. in the best way, and that’s because Hill isn’t a for-hire director who was just going to hit a fastball down the middle. He brings his trademark grit, his acidity, his understanding that the world is a tough, unforgiving place, even if you’re in a fun little buddy comedy. 

7. Trespass (1992)

Beginning life in the 1970s as a script from, of all people, Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, Trespass is a riff on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, centered on two Arkansas firemen (Bill Paxton and William Sadler) who stumble on a treasure map leading them to a cache of gold in an abandoned East St. Louis factory. When they arrive to pick up the loot, they accidentally witness a gang execution. This catalyzes a single-location thrill ride of the men holed up in this factory as they try to figure out how to escape the gang (led by Ice-T and including Ice Cube among its ranks) who need to knock off the witnesses to their crime. It’s a bizarre concoction of talent on paper, yet the execution absolutely works. 

“I wanted to make a down-and-dirty thriller,” Hill explained. “It is an adventure story that harkens back to a Jack London tradition… all about very real people in tough circumstances.” There’s not much more to it than that: Pushing the pulse on man’s greed and the prioritization of self-preservation above all costs, the tension hits a boiling point early and Hill maintains that sizzle as these opposing forces push up against one another for 100 minutes. Per Hill’s interest in experimenting formally, there’s a recurring use of a camcorder filming style designed to reflect Hill’s learning that some gangs would film their activities around this time. It doesn’t really work, especially not now, but it’s a minor quibble. 

Racial tension seeps in (the film was originally called Looters but was retitled and had its release delayed due to the L.A. riots), but like 48 Hrs., Hill lets that organically filter in via the circumstances of the characters. Paxton deserves particular praise, as his performance sits firmly alongside his tremendous gifts for taking a mild-mannered average man, placing him on the razor wire of a moral dilemma, and watching him twist and turn as his ethics fall to the wayside and he has to fight to survive. Pair it with A Simple Plan and you’ve got a powerhouse Paxton double feature.

6. Extreme Prejudice (1987)

We’ve now reached the certified gold portion of this list, and it’s nothing but wall-to-wall bangers from here on out. If Dead for a Dollar is Walter Hill’s tribute to his idol and friend Budd Boetticher, then it wouldn’t be a far reach to say that Extreme Prejudice is his ode to idol and collaborator Sam Peckinpah (Hill wrote the script for Peckinpah’s The Getaway before launching his own directing career). A neo-Western on the Texas-Mexico border, the film pits Nick Nolte’s Texas Ranger Jack Benteen against Powers Boothe’s drug-runner Cash Bailey in a battle of good and evil that’s caked with dust and sweat. The big twist is a bit of B-movie inspiration, as the picture opens up with a rotation of character actors (among them Clancy Brown and William Forsythe) under the head of Michael Ironside’s Major Paul Hackett as part of what they dub a “Zombie Unit”—a squad of military types all presumed dead, operating clandestinely for unclear motives. As Benteen and Bailey circle each other, the Zombie Unit is there in the background making their moves, the audience waiting for a collision surely to come. 

While Extreme Prejudice plays the Peckinpah elements straight, Hill throws some extra flavor in with intentional slices of outlandish embellishment to reality, as well as the long-simmering rivalry between its main characters. Like the cinematic equivalent of FX’s Justified, Benteen and Bailey have a long history as high school best friends (they dug coal together, in a sense) who have now parted ways and are on opposite sides of the law. Bailey even used to date Benteen’s current girlfriend. Bailey has corrupted, sold out his former patriotic self for the almighty dollar amidst the belief that it’s all basically fucked, so why not make a buck off being bad. Benteen is struggling to maintain a sense of righteousness, still committed to this misguided idea that the law in America really upholds something noble and right. Their paths finally come to a head in a climactic showdown that’s the most rip-roaring action sequence of Hill’s career, a brutal blast of ballistic bloodshed that ends Extreme Prejudice with a whopping bang.

5. Hard Times (1975)

After establishing a strong reputation in Hollywood as a screenwriter, Hill transitioned into directing with this debut feature about strong and silent Depression-era fighter Chaney (Charles Bronson) who joins up with promoter Speed (James Coburn) to get employed via a series of bare-knuckle street fights. Heading into New Orleans, Speed’s gambling addiction keeps their luck on the ropes. Eager to direct for the first time, Hill took the script for Hard Times and immediately imbued it with many of his trademarks. Like a Walter Hill version of Cinderella Man, this lean and mean brawler of a debut is stripped of any shine or embellishment.

Bronson, over 50 years old at the time and fresh off Death Wish with a reputation for playing guys you wouldn’t want to meet in a back alley, puts his trademark silence to its most effective use, enlisting his body language to portray the sense that this man knows what people value about him—that he’s a sack of meat whose fists can be used for profit. Hill’s gift for patience is on sharp display, cunningly restricting the use of score and keeping cuts minimal during the fighting scenes so that we feel the melancholy draped over it all. “Extremely spare, almost haiku style,” is how the director described his approach. As hard as the hits land every time, it’s the capitalist exchanging of cash and leveling up of wagers on these beaten men’s ability to sock each other out that knocks you down the hardest. One scene in particular, where a rival manager offers $5,000 to buy half of Chaney, hits like a ton of bricks. Fresh out of the gate, Hill knew how to make his pictures come in sharp and focused, with zero fat but lots of heart.

4. Streets of Fire (1984)

Set in “another time, another place,” Streets of Fire is a self-described “rock & roll fable” that was misunderstood upon release but has garnered a fervent cult following in the decades since. Things kick off as Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) and her band the Attackers hit the club stage to perform “Nowhere Fast,” a blistering rock anthem created by Jim Steinman that declares “there’s nothing wrong with going nowhere baby, but we should be going nowhere fast.” It’s an opening of pure sound and fury, a visual and aural symphony that instantly heightens the pulse of the viewer and gets you energized for this mythic tale of violence and honor. As the crowd erupts in fist-pumping revelry, Willem Dafoe’s leather-clad bat out of hell Raven Shaddock leads his gang into the club to cause havoc and kidnap Ellen. Not only is it the greatest opening sequence of Hill’s career, it’s the greatest opening in film history, period. 

Streets of Fire is designed as a Homer-esque odyssey, as once Ellen has been abducted, her ex-boyfriend and former soldier Tom Cody (Michael Paré) is called home to rescue her. Tom pulls together a motley crew for the mission, and we follow them on their journey through these lawless steampunk streets of neon lights, heavy smoke and hard rocking. This is very much a vibes movie, with Hill and frequent collaborator Larry Gross inventing a rich, breathing world that feels like the ‘80s imagined by someone living in the ‘50s. Hill explained that he wanted to make what his teenage self thought would be the perfect film, loaded with “custom cars, kissing in the rain, neon, trains in the night, high-speed pursuit, rumbles, rock stars, motorcycles, jokes in tough situations, leather jackets and questions of honor.” It’s all of that and more, a singular and transportive experience that shoots adrenaline into your veins and takes you on a rollicking ride for 90 minutes. Tonight is what it means to be young.

3. The Driver (1978)

Lean and mean has always been the name of the game in the world of Walter Hill, and you don’t get much leaner or meaner than The Driver. For the director’s second feature, he wanted to make as “pure” a picture as possible, writing a tight script that would limit the conventional flourishes of Hollywood action movies. The characters don’t even have names! Ryan O’Neal stars as The Driver, a getaway operator who comes under the watchful eye of The Detective (Bruce Dern), initiating a battle of wits between the two to see who can emerge on top. When The Detective promises some pardons for a gang to set up his adversary, The Driver enlists the help of The Player (Isabelle Adjani), a gambler with an agenda of her own. 

That’s as deep as things go from a narrative perspective, and the film was torn to shreds by American critics for being “pretentious.” The years since have been incredibly kind, however, as its hard-boiled minimalist style “has echoed throughout the work of Michael Mann, James Cameron, Quentin Tarantino, Nicolas [Winding] Refn” and Edgar Wright, to name a few. The Driver is cinema at its core essence, all shimmering cars and glistening streets as The Driver’s vehicular grooves cut through the crisp night air like a knife through butter. It’s a film that exists in the bleary hours between dusk and dawn, with Hill emphasizing shot economy and patience in his visual storytelling while his characters trade barbed-wire, matter-of-fact dialogue. 

Ryan O’Neal was notorious at this time for either being the stale center of excellent pictures (Barry Lyndon) or the mile-a-minute sleazebag talker you love to hate (Paper Moon). He’s a guy who popped up in so many of the decade’s biggest hits while still feeling like Hollywood wasn’t quite sure what to do with him. Hill found the antidote. You keep him silent, you channel his vacancy into a hollowed out all-American visage of someone who is here to get in and get out, to do the job and hit the road. But why? That’s where The Driver hits its apex, in analyzing the, ahem, drive of these characters. Not only O’Neal but particularly Bruce Dern, the cop who is so determined to get O’Neal that he’s willing to orchestrate a massive heist of his own in order to do it. His externalized fierceness is the perfect counterpoint to O’Neal’s steely resolve, both of them being so hoisted up by their own hubris they aren’t even able to see the bigger picture. The Driver is a Jean-Pierre Melville plot played out through an Edward Hopper painting. It’s all about the silence—in the air and in the soul.

2. Southern Comfort (1981)

Southern Comfort's Relentless Military Horror Movie Turns 40

Despite being one of the originators of 1979’s Alien (doing an uncredited and highly impactful treatment on the script, and shepherding the franchise as writer and producer through several films), Walter Hill has never made a straight-up horror film. Southern Comfort is the closest he’s gotten, and the white-knuckle tension here is bound to put more lumps in your throat and knots in your stomach than just about anything else you can find. Set in 1973, we follow a squad of Louisiana Army National Guardsmen (including Keith Carradine, Powers Boothe, Fred Ward and Peter Coyote) on a routine weekend maneuver who, through hubris and immaturity, antagonize a group of Cajuns native to the swampland they’re occupying. With only dummy ammunition at their disposal, the men are placed in dire circumstances as they fight to survive against folks who know how to utilize the land as a weapon. 

Its themes—American invaders corrupted by their exceptionalism into thinking they had some sort of ownership over land that doesn’t belong to them, only to be met with resistance from a native opposition much wiser and more capable than the Americans assumed them to be—led to immediate assumptions that Southern Comfort was a metaphor for Vietnam. Hill vehemently rejects this, stating, “People are going to say this is about Vietnam. They can say whatever they want, but I don’t want to hear another word about it.” While the comparisons are obvious, Hill also has a point: This sort of narcissistic egotism and colonizer mentality isn’t solely exemplified by the Vietnam War. It’s firmly on display throughout American history, present and future.

Southern Comfort was a notoriously tough shoot for its cast and crew, as these characters traverse through a marshland that’s attacking them at every turn. With inept leadership and undisciplined subordinates, Southern Comfort presents us not a virtuous squadron of American military heroes, but a foolish gang of hooligans who get what’s coming to them. It’s a film which exemplifies Hill’s skills as an action director, with masterful cross-cutting to keep the tension at a fever pitch, slowly burning as the situation starts dire and somehow keeps getting worse. If Streets of Fire has the greatest opening of Hill’s career, Southern Comfort has the strongest ending, with a final section in which the surviving soldiers think they’ve found salvation when they hitch a ride into a small Cajun community barbecue only to slowly realize this is the biggest trap of all. Nerve-shredding filmmaking at its finest.

1. The Warriors (1979)

walter hill ranked

“Can you dig it?” 

Roger Hill’s voice echoes out across a sea of gang members at Van Cortlandt Park. The answer, emphatically, is yes. Walter Hill’s third feature again demonstrates his love for Western motifs, as the titular gang is placed with their back up against the wall, the late-night terrain of New York City being turned into a battlefield where death awaits them at every turn after they’re framed for murder. 

The immaculate world-building is what stands out most emphatically about The Warriors and contributed, along with its mammoth cult status, to this being the only Hill film to receive a video game adaptation and a board game! Hill and his team construct a universe that feels just slightly left of our own, one you could easily see pulled from comic books (though the film was based on Sol Yurick’s 1965 novel of the same name). It’s a land where distinctively costumed gangs roam the streets to mark their turf and keep it, where your enemy is clear to see as they’re coming at you, dressed in baseball uniforms or on roller skates. As much as the film is a Western, there’s a lot of pure musical energy running through it as well—emphasized by the absolutely killer soundtrack that is sure to get you amped up and ready for a rumble. 

While the race-against-the-clock narrative propulsion is positively gripping, the smaller elements laced throughout The Warriors leave the most lasting impression. The image of these men desperately hanging onto their world, one that is soon to evaporate with both Reagan and the AIDS epidemic right around the corner. Closeted queerness is coded in plenty, not just in the leather-vested heroes, but also in James Remar’s repeated use of the f-slur to denigrate his fellow Warriors. It’s telling that his downfall comes as a result of his pathetic need to demonstrate his virulent heterosexuality. 

The subway bathroom fight is astonishing, but the greatest scene comes on the train itself. Warriors leader Swan (Michael Beck) and a rival gang leader’s emancipated girlfriend Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) sit, battered and bruised, as a group of fresh-faced young folks hop onboard. These civilians are dressed up looking like they just left their prom, smiling from ear to ear and clearly well-off. When they see the state of Swan and Mercy, they look shocked, pitying and uncomfortable. Mercy and Swan are clearly aware of being perceived by these yuppies, and Mercy goes to fix her hair, to try and be more “presentable” to them. Swan stops her, signaling to her that she doesn’t need to try ti be what they deem respectable. She’s enough. They’re no better than her. It’s a scene in the middle of a comic-book-world Western that says so much about class in America. It’s a gorgeous moment of victory in a film so rife with defeat.

“You Warriors are good. Real good.”

“The best.”

Currently based in Newark, Delaware, Mitchell Beaupre is the Senior Editor at Letterboxd, and a freelance film journalist for sites including The Film Stage, Paste Magazine, and Little White Lies. With every new movie they watch, they’re adding five more to their never-ending Letterboxd watchlist. You can find them on Twitter at @itismitchell.

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