at Cinema 57
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CONscious parody of and simple misexection of a given film genre is sometimes very slim. Extreme Prejudice, the latest installment in the inconsistent career of Hollywood stoneface Nick Nolte, purports to be a classic action film, combining elements from spy thrillers, cops-and-robbers flicks and even Westerns. Extreme Prejudice, however, is actually an amusing farce about a group of characters so stiff with machismo that their joints creak every time they reach for their trusty six-shooters. Which is often.
The problem with Extreme is that the viewer cannot decide whether the film is meant to be taken as a joke. On one hand, the actors seem to take their roles very seriously, uttering their lines with all the gravity one would give to a Shakespearean soliloquy. On the other hand, the lines themselves and most of the action are so uproariously stupid that one cannot help but think that Nolte and company are giggling hysterically behind their iron faces. So it may just be that Extreme Prejudice is one of those rare Hollywood gems: a film taken seriously precisely because it is so awful, a kind of "Plan 9 At The O.K. Corral."
The plot is ludicrous. An undercover Army group, made up of men who have been officially listed as killed in action, come to a Texas border town to rob a bank and get funds for a secret mission. There they run across Jack Benteen (Nolte), a hard-boiled Texas Ranger who unwittingly assumes that the crime wave sweeping his town is caused by real criminals instead of the United States Armed Forces. He lays all the blame on a childhood friend of his, Cash Bailey (Powers Boothe), who now lives in Mexico and runs smack for a living.
As this snarled web of deception unwinds throughout the course of the movie, lots of exciting stuff happens. Buildings blow up--usually in slow motion. Guys punch each other out, with blows that make that great ping-pong-paddle-on-naugahyde noise. Lots of low-life Texans, criminals, Mexicans and innocent bystanders get shot. Half the time characters fire upon people they've already killed just to make sure the corpses don't spring to life in Day Of The Dead-fashion. And gradually, the audience gets the point of this film and begins to laugh out loud.
Certainly, Nolte's character merits a few good chuckles. For one thing, here's a good guy who always wears black--in stark contrast to Boothe's omnipresent white suit. Nick sure is tough. He's the type of cop who casually slips vital evidence into his shirt pockets with his keys. The type of cop who cares but does not raise an eyebrow when he sees his best friend (Rip Torn) gunned down. The type of cop who says things like, "I'm particular who I drink with." The type of cop who is one walking macho cliche.
In fact, there's not a whole lot of difference between Benteen (the good guy) and Bailey (one of the many bad guys). It's easy to see why these guys were childhood buddies. They both like violence. They both like the same woman (Maria Conchita Alonso), who lives with Benteen at the opening of the film but used to live with Bailey. They both like mistreating the same woman. At the end of the film, the two spiritual compadres fight a duel. Benteen makes Alonso count off. Bailey rips open her skirt and says, "Come on, show us some tit and give us some motivation."
All of this indicates some sort of twisted mentality on the part of the creators of this film, director Walter Hill and co-writer John Milius. When a movie features contributions by people whose previous work includes Red Dawn, Rambo, First Blood Part 2 and Streets Of Fire, the emerging world-view would have to be a little skewed. Skewed, however, does not even come close to describing the world of Extreme. The motto here is not "liberty and justice for all," but "we didn't hurt him none, we just roughed him up a bit."
Fortunately, Extreme is spared a place in the fascist hall of fame by its own sheer stupidity. Characters constantly spew out little homespun bits of wisdom that are supposed to show how in touch with the real world they are but actually reveal how completely distant they are from even the most generous definition of sanity. Are we supposed to take Rip Torn seriously when he explains that "the federal government is nothing but a bunch of child molesters"? It is the saving grace of Extreme that even if we're supposed to accept these epigrams, we don't have to.
In this light, Extreme becomes an entertaining piece of Hollywood garbage, endearing precisely because it stinks. File it in between Plan 9 From Outer Space and Beyond The Valley Of The Ultra-Vixens and revel in the unintentional hilarity. All Extreme Prejudice lacks are extra-terrestrial vehicles that look like Chrysler hubcaps.