To those tired of trying to choose the lesser of two evils, the fantasy of razing both evils can be irresistible. That's the pull of the story invented by Dashiell Hammett in his 1929 gangster novel Red Harvest and revamped by Akira Kurosawa in his 1961 samurai movie Yojimbo and by Sergio Leone in his 1964 spaghetti western Fistful of Dollars (an unofficial remake of Yojimbo that at times follows it frame by frame). A stranger wanders into an isolated hellhole, sees that both sides of a power struggle are amoral and vicious, and plots their destruction at each other's hands. Without acknowledging Hammett, Kurosawa said that Yojimbo took shape in his mind when he envisioned a hero who "is able to stand squarely in the middle, and stop the fight"; ordinary folk (the rest of us) are "weakly caught" in the center.
When Kurosawa got around to making the movie, he learned what Hammett knew before him: that if corruption is universal the "hero" shares in it, too, becoming the bloody master of the revels in a jet-black comedy. At the end of Yojimbo, when Toshiro Mifune says, "Now there'll be a little quiet in this town," he reminds you of the Vietnam War policy of "pacification," destroying a village in order to save it. Still, Kurosawa convinces you that the villains deserve annihilation, and Mifune achieves his goal through swordsmanship and prowess that turn you on rather than bum you out. As Donald Richie put it in The Films of Akira Kurosawa, the director gets away with a protagonist "whose only virtue is a negative one: he is not actively concerned in being bad." And like Hammett's Continental Op (or later, of course, Leone's Man With No Name), Mifune's swordsman realizes himself completely in action, without gassing on about a warrior's ethic. He's a figure made for the movies -- and, one would think, for a director like Walter Hill, who approaches an ideal of pure action in contemporary classics like The Warriors and Southern Comfort as well as in disreputable cult films like Streets of Fire.
After a decade pockmarked with artistic fizzles (Crossroads) and brutal commercial undertakings (Another 48 HRS.), Hill has surged back in the '90s with some of his most ambitious and exciting work. He transformed a ruined cityscape into a Poe-like metaphor of entropy for the urban-siege film Trespass; deftly eddied among tumultuous flashbacks-within-flashbacks for his audacious, inside-out portrait of an American myth, Wild Bill (as in Hickok); and achieved an unusual, visceral dignity for his outside-in portrait of Geronimo: An American Legend. In many ways, he's become a more complex filmmaker than he was in his Warriors days, willing to face complicated attitudes and feelings that require dialogue and even that bane of film theorists, voice-over.
But in Last Man Standing, an official remake of Yojimbo that resets the action in a Tex-Mex border town overrun by bootleggers during Prohibition, Hill has made his most inert film since his 1988 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, Red Heat. Presumably intent on avoiding any duplication of Kurosawa's dynamite ploys, he defuses the material. With Bruce Willis as a drifting gunman who wanders into the village of Jericho for gas and a rest stop and tangles with two rival gangs -- one Irish, one Italian -- the ingredients are set for a Hammett-like Molotov cocktail (Hill has long wanted to film Red Harvest). Unfortunately, Hill has conceived the ambushes and shootouts not in terms of escalating set pieces and catharses, but as blips in a violent reverie. He and his gifted collaborators, cinematographer Lloyd Ahern and editor Freeman Davies, know exactly what they're doing; too bad the conception didn't include humor or surprise revelations. Willis' voice-over verges on a run-on, a sorry replacement for dramatization; the action, lit in color that ranges from rum to dark cocoa (with an occasional splash of red), unrolls as a series of archetypal confrontations interspersed with tableaux, as seamless and impenetrable as someone else's bad dream. Reading Hammett's novel provides more kinetic pow than watching this film; as you put Red Harvest together in your head, you find your wits sharpening as the Continental Op treats "Poisonville" as a shooting gallery. In Last Man Standing Willis' opponents aren't moving targets -- they're dead meat.
We're supposed to experience this man-with-a-gun saga not as an amorality play out of Hammett or Kurosawa but as a Hillian morality play (like his underrated Johnny Handsome). At the start, Willis instructs the audience that there's a right or wrong even at the lowest depths you can sink to, and we see a beautiful mestizo woman (Karina Lombard) lighting a candle at a Catholic altar before she means anything to us (she never does). A righteous gal the Irish gang-leader won in a card game -- a wife and mother who aches to reunite with her family in Mexico -- she's the one who will soon get Willis stuck in Jericho. Before he learns that she's a mob boss' obsession, he looks at her too closely for the gang's comfort; after the mobsters wreck his car, he decides to get even -- to filch some of the gangsters' filthy lucre for himself, and (eventually) to spring Lombard. The moral landscape is as clear as black -- or rather, brown -- and white, with Willis on the side of the bruised angel and the bootleggers dragging everybody into hell with them. But that doesn't mean Hill has fleshed it out. In the past, one of Hill's strengths has been his ability to siphon classical and historical material into Hollywood genres, from 1979, when he poured Xenephon's Anabasis into the gang-film contours of The Warriors, to 1995, when he packed two decades of western lore into 98 glorious minutes of Wild Bill. Hill's love for archetypal storytelling, when allied with flesh-and-blood material, gives his movies a concussive clout unlike those of other action directors. They have a sinewy irony: They can express soaring heroic emotions while holding macho sentimentality in check. Last Man Standing, though, is a warmed-over metaphor -- an abstract and general retelling of a film that already was a flight of savage comic poetry. It's a cripplingly self-conscious action-art piece; the idea for a thrill or a frisson is apt to register more often than the thing itself.
The juxtaposition of urban gangsters with a frontier setting has corkscrew possibilities that don't get the requisite twist. (It needed something like the whirlwind dislocation of the opening scenes in Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.) James Remar was more sleekly discordant as the assassin who offers to eliminate Hickok in Wild Bill than David Patrick Kelly is as the leader of the Irish gang in Last Man Standing; in seconds, Remar insinuated metropolitan values sullying the landscape. In this film, the thugs' natty suits and hats and awesome firepower fail to detonate the odd resonance Hill must have intended for Jericho, which is a ghost town even though there are people in it. The leading citizens include Bruce Dern as the pragmatic sheriff, William Sanderson as a saloon owner (Willis' unlikely sidekick), Ned Eisenberg and Michael Imperioli as the top guys in the Italian minimob, and Christopher Walken as Kelly's right-hand man. Only the balding, ejaculatory Eisenberg has the spluttering Roman-candle energy to light up his scenes. Moments probably meant to be funny -- like the Italian organization dining on cartoonish plates of pasta and red sauce -- just lie there like limp noodles. Even in the best of Hill's recent films, backgrounds sometimes go slack; a military dance did nothing to buoy Geronimo the way the singing and dancing did in Hill's masterly Jesse James elegy, The Long Riders. But Last Man Standing is hollow all the way through.
One sure-fire property of the Yojimbo story is its maplike approach to evil: The warring factions dominate opposite ends of town and the hero observes their conflicts from a watchtower, like a demigod. That vantage point gives audiences the kick of feeling in the thick of the action while hovering above it. Yet I had trouble simply placing the incidents in Last Man Standing. The most striking visuals are either microcosmic -- like visions of a dusty street seen through the odd grain of warped glass -- or impressionistic, like long-lensed views of the nighttime lights and headlights that imbue Jericho with the eerie, Hades-like aspect of a biblical Sin City. In either case, the effects are static. (Hill's homage to Kurosawa's dog trotting through town, human hand in mouth, is static, too: a horse's corpse festering in the street.) And Hill hasn't translated the excitement of seeing one man with a sword defeat twin armies into the vocabulary of a Roaring '20s shoot'em-up. Mostly Willis walks into enemy territory with guns blazing and merely mows down the opposition. Walken is set up as the surrogate for Tatsuya Nakadai's pistolero in Yojimbo and Gian Maria Volonte's Winchester-wielding Satan in Fistful of Dollars: He's a horribly scarred, stone-cold killer whose preferred weapon is a tommy gun. You expect an epic contest between Walken's submachine gun and Willis' handguns. But way before they have their fizzle of a face-off, you've ceased to care. Last Man Standing commits so much carnage to so little impact that every climax is anti-. The body count has an added casualty -- suspense.
There's a wonderful bit in the Kurosawa film that commences with a close-up of a leaf wafting across a floor and comes to a jolt when the samurai's throwing-knife spears it. Occurring at a point in the action when the hero is recovering from a beating, it conveys the man-of-action's craft and his readiness to practice it. Hill doesn't hand Willis a single moment like that. The star gives a stand-up performance: He looks fit and resists smirking, and in the scenes with Alexandra Powers (who plays a reluctant gun-moll, the most likable of the movie's women), the two do what they can to generate first cynical attraction, then weathered emotion. (Powers might break through if given a real part, like Hammett's wily gold digger, Dinah Brand.) But the failed drollery behind Willis' violent drifter is his anonymity: He identifies himself as "John Smith." Willis leaves behind his wise-guy motormouth persona and commits to being a laconic icon, but the script doesn't back him up. "John Smith" contends that what starts out for him in Jericho as a mercenary sortie turns personal. You believe him only when he's all business.
In his first movie as a director, the gripping and unexpectedly moving 1975 Charles Bronson adventure Hard Times, Hill revealed an affinity for the American loner: the stranger who comes through a small city or hamlet, rights a few wrongs, and leaves. The poet Edwin Arlington Robinson immortalized that type as "the man Flammonde, from God knows where ... with glint of iron in his eyes, but never doubt, nor yet surprise," a knight-errant who can see the virtue in a supposed scarlet woman and the potential in an arrested adolescent. Hill wants Willis to be a soiled descendant of that "Prince of Castaways." No such luck: He's just a pretender to the throne.
Last Man Standing opens Friday, Sept. 20, at area theaters.