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Monday, March 28, 2016

Extreme Prejudice (1987)

Story by John Milius and Fred Rexer; Screenplay by Deric Washburn and Harry Kleiner
Directed by Walter Hill

Nick Nolte:  Jack Benteen
Powers Boothe:  Cash Bailey
Michael Ironside:  Major Paul Hackett
Clancy Brown:  Master Sergeant Larry McRose
William Forsythe:  Sergeant Buck Atwater
Maria Conchita Alonso:  Sarita Cisneros

I just saw Turbo Kid yesterday and now I'm in the mood for some more scenes of Michael Ironside being a total badass. While I'm at it, I'm also in the mood for some Walter Hill-directed action and the original mission statement of this blog ("Use the movies of the time to examine Cold War politics") means that I really ought to take a look at something that uses the War on (Some of the People Who Take Some Varieties Of) Drugs as a plot device.

So here we are. I'm sure this one will be testosterone-poisoned, even for a Walter Hill Joint. There are five different characters listed as some kind of sergeant in the IMDB credits as well as two deputies and the intriguingly named "Man with Chub" and "Chicken Champ Kid". A quick scan of the performers shows that the gender balance of the movie is about 19:1 in favor of men. That's the kind of imbalance you normally only see in a Chang Cheh movie, and since it's Walter Hill in charge of this film I'm willing to bet that it'll be saying things about masculinity, not just having characters be really masculine over the running time.

The title is a fragment of the phrase "terminate with extreme prejudice", which is CIA and military slang for a shoot-to-kill order, or more colloquially, "Wreck the shit out of that guy", and hopefully some day there will be a direct-to-VOD action movie called Wreck the Shit Out of That Guy. Or, if we're really lucky, that will be the subtitle for The Raid 3. Now on to the narrative.

Hey, remember teletypes? It's what people used before text messages, cell phones, the Internet, and other 21st century communications technologies to get information around quickly. And they were bulky machines, usually owned by newspapers, the military, and spy agencies--at least in movies. I wouldn't know about how they got used in real life. At any rate, the first image on the screen in Extreme Prejudice is a dot-matrix teletype cranking away informing the Clancy Brown character that he's been reassigned to "Zombie Unit". The word "Werewolf" shows up without any context--and in too close of a shot to get any context for its appearance. Dare I hope that this isn't just a Walter Hill action movie about a border war between drug gangs and a Texas Ranger, but that it's also going to have monsters in it? I think a werewolf with a Stetson hat and a Ranger badge would be a heck of a thing to put in a film (Asylum studios, if you're reading this, email me! We'll come up with something!). The viewer sees words, then sentence fragments (in a closer shot) and then just individual letters (in an even closer shot). Which probably means that the viewer, like the characters, is deliberately not being given the full story right from the start. Which is completely appropriate for a war-on-drugs movie from 1987, or an unfortunate artifact of the DVD I've got the film on, which is cropped to full frame instead of widescreen.

Master Sergeant Larry McRose steps off a bus toting his luggage and sporting a really impressive several-weeks-growth beard. We only get to see him for a second or two before his ID card from the US Army gets shown on screen as well as a caption that he was declared missing in action in 1972 and is officially presumed dead. At the same bus terminal, there's the loudmouthed hick Buckman Atwater, officially killed defusing a bomb in 1974 and his "body damaged beyond recognition". A third sergeant, Charles Biddle, was officially killed in a helicopter crash in 1983 and his body never recovered. I realize this is the same setup for joining MegaForce, but I'm willing to overlook that in favor of seeing what Walter Hill does with the concept of badass military men who can never go back to their previous lives. Biddle's attempt to set up a booty call on a pay phone is interrupted by a fourth sergeant, the towering Luther Fry, "killed" during a training exercise in 1977. Their conversation is interrupted by Staff Sergeant Declan Coker literally jumping up on Fry to greet him; Coker was on a chartered plane that went down in 1984 and his body was never identified. Collectively they're team and their individual roles are the Leader (Hackett), the Conscience (McRose), the Muscle (Fry), the Techie (Biddle) and The Guy Who Doesn't Really Get a Trait (Coker).

That's a lot of dead-on-the-paperwork soldiers to be in one place. And the sixth one, a major named Paul Hackett, is listed as killed in action during the evacuation of Saigon in 1973; there was a mass burial, so Hackett didn't even get an individual gravestone to show where his body is supposed to be. The soldiers catch up with each other with an expected amount of dick measuring and friendly insults, with Fry and McRose immediately breaking off their hostilities when the major tells them that there are no problems. Well, technically there was probably a question mark there but Hackett was undeniably telling his subordinates that they were not going to have a problem with each other.

Then it's time for the credits over a red-and-orange sky at sunset; Nick Nolte and Powers Boothe have first and second billing but neither of their characters were in that opening scene. Walter Hill gets his name on the screen just as the sky is going fully black, and then the scene shifts to jacked-up trucks driving in a torrential rainstorm. The Texas Rangers in the lead truck pull up to a bar, where they identify a known dope runner's vehicle outside and wonder why the Border Patrol is so terrible at catching up with criminals who make their way from Mexico to Texas. While the passenger radios the Border Patrol to let them know that a criminal named Chub is driving back over the border and maybe they could try to capture him this time, the driver, Jack Benteen, brings a shotgun into the bar--which is full of Hispanics that don't look like they want a Texas Ranger in there at that particular moment. Benteen notifies a drug grower named T. C. that they're going to be leaving together. T. C. notifies Benteen of his refusal to put handcuffs on himself and go out to the Ranger truck by drawing a pistol; the criminal winds up dead and one of his friends gets smacked unconscious with the stock of the shotgun. Which shows that Benteen isn't one of those "shoot everyone" kinds of 80s cops--he's willing to take people in alive but concussed but alive, which is pretty unique for action movies of this vintage.

The other Ranger provides some backup and the third member of T. C.'s organization gets cuffed and hauled out as well; the film doesn't mention it but presumably crime scene photographers will get there soon and an ambulance that won't be bothering with lights or sirens will be along for T. C.'s body eventually. Benteen goes back to his place and wakes up his girlfriend Sarita, who works a different shift than the Ranger and is happy for the opportunity to actually see him without having to schedule time for it in advance. Benteen's not thrilled that he had to kill someone earlier (which makes him rather atypical for an action hero in this decade), and even less happy that he did it because farming pays so little in the region that dope running for someone named Cash Bailey is the only way for some people to hang on to their land and livelihoods (how in the hell did a nuanced look at drug importation get on American movie screens in 1987?).

Meanwhile, somewhere else, a stubbly guy in a sweat-stained white suit and cowboy hat watches a helicopter approach his ranch and plays with a scorpion that climbed out of a big bag of weed before crushing the arachnid in his bare hand. That's our introduction to Cash Bailey. Bailey's operation is being watched by a couple of the soldiers from the opening scenes; there's a rust-bucket truck three decades old that transports ledgers and cash for Bailey's operation. It makes sense to me that a smart drug lord wouldn't flash a lot of style in this area--everyone wears jeans, not Armani suits, and having a gleaming black limo drive up to the bank twice a week would effectively put a blinking neon sign up saying YOU CANNOT IGNORE THAT I AM A DRUG LORD with Bailey's signature in bright electric blue. As it is, his operation has attracted the notice of the black ops squad, but that's a completely different level of attention that forcing the local police or sheriffs (or Rangers) to do something about you.

Whatever operation is going on, the Dead Boys know who Jack Benteen is just like they know how the drug profits are being laundered at a tiny local bank. And they watch one of Bailey's goons deliver a bomb in a rabbit cage to a local restaurant to take out some dude named Andy. As a consequence of this, Ranger Benteen and some local law enforcement types grab a low level dealer in order to tell the guy that he has a choice:  get arrested for selling drugs or tell Cash Bailey that Benteen wants to set up a meeting (in Mexico, out of the Ranger's jurisdiction). And the location is given as "the old blind where we used to hunt deer", which does not sound like the kind of thing you'd usually hear from a crusading lawman.

Another helicopter-landing-fueled transition ensues as we watch two of Bailey's goons (one of whom is played by the unmistakable Tom "Tiny" Lister, Jr.) tell Benteen they need his gun (the Ranger refuses, naturally) and Cash Bailey stepping out of the whirlybird to tell his hench that they can just back off; he trusts Benteen enough to keep a firearm in his possession in the drug lord's presence. Interesting. That quote from E. M. Forster about choosing between your country or your friend to betray comes to mind. It's been a while since they've seen each other but the affection that Cash and Benteen have for each other appears to be completely unfeigned. Cash, in lieu of talking about their present circumstances, reminisces about the past and asks about a girlfriend the pair of them had (at the same time, if Bailey's story can be believed). Bailey implies that the bombing was a punitive action because one of his partners was skimming from the till, but also says he would like to set up a deal with Benteen to have the crime solved. Then, of course, he offers to bribe his old friend to the tune of a hundred grand a year to switch sides, and Benteen says he'd be perfectly willing to cross over but he'd have to quit being a Ranger if he did, and his value to the Cash Bailey personal cartel would be minimal without his badge.

Neither old friend wants to hurt the other (I know this is how I'd feel if Captain Telstar, the best character I made in seven years of playing City of Villains, ever had to throw down against BioVolt the lightning-throwing City of Heroes character played by my decades-long friend Joel). But there's still a pair of deaths to account for and the small matter of a drug pipeline from Mexico to the United States run by Cash Bailey. Benteen tells him that he's willing to look the other way long enough for his old friend to cash out and run away to some place that doesn't have an extradition treaty. Bailey isn't willing to consider cutting and running, and tells Benteen that he's on the wrong side of the Rio Grande to make threats. Benteen is implacable, even when Cash starts asking about Sarita, the woman from before, and mentions that he should have married her himself back in the day. Benteen won't be distracted, though, and tells his old friend one more time to skip town while he can and then walks away. Cash Bailey gets the last word, though, saying he's got a feeling that the next time they see each other one of them is going to be leaving feet first.

Whatever the Zombie Unit soldiers are up to, it starts in an unemployment office in Texas. Sergeant Atwater starts talking smack about the towering black dude a couple spaces ahead of him in line to talk to a clerk, and gets one-shotted out cold by Sergeant Fry as part of whatever plan this is. One assumes that Atwater's irritating enough that Fry volunteered for the chance to punch his lights out. Meanwhile, Major Hackett is talking to that bank president we saw briefly, wondering just how safe their safes are on site. And Atwater and Fry are shown in jail cells, setting up some kind of remote microphone system smuggled into the building in Fry's hollowed-out shoe heel. Atwater, acting serious for a change, lists off all the guns and riot gear that the police have in their station (and sums it up by saying they're perfectly set up to handle drunken hicks--damning with faint praise if I've ever heard it). Meanwhile, Hackett and his sinister black briefcase stop by the car that Sergeant McRose is driving; his trip to the bank was meant to give him the chance to scope out the security system there. I'd guess there's going to be a bank robbery coming up, and the soldiers want to know what kind of worst-case-scenario police firepower can be brought to bear against them.

Got room in your heart for another "meanwhile"? Meanwhile, the county sheriff that has been working with Benteen brings in a dossier on Cash Bailey that lists what he's been up to and how he became a weed baron over the last decade or so. He's got enough money and clout to escape legal consequences in Texas and in Mexico, and he's been successful enough that he thinks he can keep going that way indefinitely. And Benteen still thinks of Cash as his old friend, regardless of where life has taken the pair of them. The sheriff says that the easiest way is just about always the wrong one and uses a metaphor for water following the path of least resistance to explain why rivers and men go crooked. The sheriff leaves Benteen's office after cheerfully warning the Ranger about that Chub Luke guy they failed to catch earlier outside the bar where T. C. got shot to death; apparently Chub is going to lay some kind of ambush for Benteen on his drive home.

Nothing happens that day, but when he wakes up in the morning Sarita knows that Benteen had a meeting with her old ex-boyfriend Cash Bailey; apparently the Mexican community has a fully functional rumor mill that keeps people updated on all the important happenings in town (such as, say, a Texas Ranger slapping a low level dope seller around a little bit in order to set up a meeting with a big-time dope seller). Sarita asks what Bailey said about her and Benteen lies to her, saying the subject never came up--which boils over into an argument when she's showering and he's brushing his teeth. Sarita wants to know if Benteen's ever going to make an honest woman of her after two years of them sleeping together, and Benteen's obviously thinking about how much more his old buddy Cash has to offer her than he does--at least on a material level. It's also the angriest we've seen him so far in the film, which is interesting because we've seen him walk into a potential death trap, shoot someone who pulled a gun on him and try to save the life of an old friend from his rather distant past without getting rattled.

Over at his office, Benteen is taking his fight with Sarita out on everyone nearby, and the sheriff tries to defuse things (since it's Rip Torn, he more or less succeeds). A tip comes in about some drug deal stuff going down and Benteen heads out with the sheriff to go deal with it; they go right past the cell holding Sergeant Fry--a great reminder that the two plotlines are indeed intertwined, and that the military guys are going to get warned about what's going on thanks to that radio transmitter rig.

Next follow two scenes in cars--the sheriff and Benteen talk about how things are deteriorating in town and how T. C. used to be a really good kid along with his brother Chub (the sheriff mentions going on fishing trips with their father). In the other car, Sergeant McRose is driving Major Hackett somewhere and they're talking about having to blow up a building as a distraction before robbing the bank; Hackett says that they're only stealing money from the bank to cover up that they're also going to raid the safe deposit boxes. He also tells his driver that it's a national security issue when McRose says that he's not thrilled about using his black ops skills against American targets (especially if it means blowing up someone's property as a distraction for the sham operation that's covering the real operation). I'm really not used to Clancy Brown playing the nicest one in a group.

The sheriff and Benteen pull up to a dilapidated gas station that wouldn't be out of place in one of those spam-in-a-cabin movies. Arturo, the guy who owns the place, comes out to tell him there's been some Mexicans hanging out in the middle of nowhere drinking beer and waiting for someone; he says the guy with the beard got called "Chub" by the others. That's all our stalwart lawmen need to hear in order to jump into action. Benteen sneaks around to the back door while the sheriff and Arturo remain up front. And from a distance, Hackett and McRose keep an eye on the situation so they know what the local law enforcement is like.

Once the bullets inevitably start flying, the sheriff gets taken down by Arturo and Benteen is outnumbered as well as outgunned. Benteen has a lever-action rifle and some kind of automatic pistol up against a half a dozen people with submachine guns and assault rifles. But he's smarter and knows to do things like duck behind cover instead of walk around like he owns the place (he also, like the head of the Irish mob in Miller's Crossing, knows that shooting someone in the foot is a hell of a distraction). Chub and a couple of his underlings get away, and Benteen isn't going to be driving his Ranger truck anywhere without some extensive body work. The pickup truck full of dope slingers makes its way to Hackett's station wagon and Chubb and a nameless hench with a machete make their ultimate mistake when trying to carjack the pair of black ops soldiers. Hackett kills the machete guys with his bare hands, because you don't threaten Michael Ironside without serious consequences.

Time for another "meanwhile", wherein a call from Cash Bailey's lieutenant to a bank president is monitored and recorded by Sergeant Biddle, the guy who uses all the computers for the group. Every crew needs a tech guy, of course, and for fans of clunky Eighties computer and A/V gear this scene is a real treat. After we see that the shadowy military forces know what's going on with Cash Bailey's cash flow, Hackett shows up in disguise as a glasses wearing, pencil-pushing Fed to talk to Benteen about efforts to monitor the drug traffic along the Texas-Mexico border. benteen isn't particularly having any of it, and blows the "bureaucrat" off in no uncertain terms.

Time for a musical number. We all know from our reading that Walter Hill likes to put the occasional song in his films from time to time, and this one has Maria Conchita Alonso as the chanteuse at a bar, backed up by a mariachi band. The fake Fed invites himself to drink with Benteen, who happens to have very high standards for boozing partners. It also transpires that Benteen has requested help and information from the DEA for more than a year but never heard back from them, so he's less than thrilled that an unrelated paper-shuffler has shown up and assumes assistance from the local Texas Ranger will be forthcoming.

Once he starts talking, though, Benteen finds it hard to stop. He's sore about the sheriff getting gunned down, and furious that the drug tip that sent them to Arturo's was a trap. After dropping Cash Bailey's name as the local big fish and cause of all the recent ruckus, Benteen gives a shell casing from the scene to Hackett and is told that the manufacturer's mark on the brass--which Benteen doesn't recognize--can get ID'd in a day. Benteen says if that really happens he'll be impressed enough to cooperate with the federal guy's investigation and walks off. In 1987 people were awfully cavalier about the chain of evidence in homicide investigations. At least in Movie Texas, they were.

Sarita realizes that her man's knotted up and angry because of the sheriff's death, but Benteen says he can't talk about it (he's not the kind of man who does that). Instead, he's going to do something about it (because he is the kind of man who does that). Sarita wants to talk to her man about what's going on, and Benteen says things are too complicated right now with him, Cash and Sarita so he wants her to give talking about their situation a break; they part on bad terms.

The next morning, Atwater gets bailed out of his jail cell and goes to a car that has the three other sergeants in it. He's his usual happy asshole self until he finds out that the plan to rob the bank has changed and that it's going to be a "daylight hit". Even the jerkiest of the crew realizes that will result in deaths, and he didn't sign up to kill innocent Americans in his second life as a black ops soldier any more than any of the other men did. But McRose follows orders, just like he expects all the other men to do as well. A little later, we see Atwater and Fry in a sewer tunnel looking at the power cables going into the bank (and there's a completely gratuitous scene where Atwater stabs a sewer rat).

That night, and across the river in Texas, Bailey gets dropped off at an apartment building by his goons. He's not using the helicopter at this point, since that's a little conspicuous. He's still got a bright white suit on, though, so there's a limit to how sensible Bailey is willing to be. Biddle's still in the crew's surveillance van and we hear Bailey talking from a bug before we see who he's visiting. He makes reference to proving that he really wants whoever it is because it's a massive risk for him to be on the American side of the Rio Grande. Inevitably, it turns out to be Sarita that he's visiting. Just as she's not satisfied with what she gets from Benteen, she's not certain that fleeing the States and living life as Cash Bailey's kept woman is what she wants--after all, he left her before and he could do it again if he gets bored or spots someone he likes better. Bailey says it'll be different this time, and that Sarita's the best woman he's ever known. When the scene breaks off, it's an open question of whether or not Sarita's going to go with Cash, but the drug lord mentions a big Independence Day celebration coming up, and if I know my Walter Hill movies there's going to be plenty of fireworks that day.

Back at his office, Ranger Benteen is going through a CIA-supplied catalog of cartridge case markings; it looks like he's not convinced that the lab in Austin or his new friend with pull in Washington will be helping him out in time. He's just starting to consult the binder full of shell casing marks when Hackett shows up and tells him it's German ammo shipped to Montreal. The working hypothesis is that Bailey is buying foreign ammunition for some reason--perhaps American manufacturers weren't openly selling to Mexican drug cartels in 1987.

After changing his suit (the "D.E.A." functionary wears a white suit, a necktie and glasses when he's talking to Benteen; Hackett is in black with no glasses or tie when he's with his men) it's time for the official Heist Briefing. Rule One of Heist Club is that they have to look like civilian bank robbers in order for the overall plan to work. Rule Two is that they won't be using radios at any point once the robbery starts. Rule Three is that timing is paramount and Rule Four is that they will use beepers to signal their base of operations once things have been accomplished. It's not quite as precise as the First Gotham Mafia Bank getting knocked over by a crew of five (then four...three...two...oh, just the Joker at this point) but there's certainly plenty that has to go right in order for all the men to get away safe.

Hackett's going to give the go signal on site at the bank while everyone else takes their places and preps their tasks. Atwater rigs a semi truck with some kind of bomb as the distraction; Coker's stuck driving it and he's had the least dialogue in the film so far. He doesn't get blown up, though. He dives out of the semi before it smacks into a warehouse, sending it up into a cloud of smoke and flame and distracting the hell out of the local police (including Benteen). Several minutes after the warehouse goes up, Fry kills the phones at the sheriff's station, and the dispatch guys are too busy trying to get a dial tone to even suspect that something's up.

McRose and Fry--in security guard uniforms--get into the bank, disarm the requisite on-site elderly security guard, and start making their withdrawals. Meanwhile, Coker has driven into a ditch and can't get the car out of the sandy soil on the side of the road (even with Atwater pushing).  While the two fake security guards clear out the cash on hand, Hackett takes the bank president into the safety deposit box room, sticks a gun literally in his face, and asks if he feels like dying for Cash Bailey instead of handing over the man's safe deposit box. He's not interested in the money in there, but takes a couple of notebooks instead. Around this time, Coker and Atwater get their car back on the road and head into town for the rendezvous that they're probably just slightly late for now.

Bailey's money man takes about a step and a half into the bank before getting clubbed unconscious by Fry; he had two suitcases full of cash on him, so Hackett's people are probably financed for the next couple of decades. Add in the money they're swiping from the bank as well and they're doing fine. Well, they would be, but...answer me this. You ever seen a heist in a movie that went the way the criminals planned it to? Me neither. The first any of the soldiers know about things going wrong, it's when Fry gets shot to death by an Uzi-toting hench of Cash Bailey's. That guy lives about another four seconds more than Fry does, and the robbers leave in two vehicles just as Benteen drives up and sees Coker throw an illegal U-turn. A rather choppily edited chase scene ensues (I don't get much spatial information from closeups of Nick Nolte behind a steering wheel, myself) and when Coker drives down the wrong alley and racks his car up, he and Atwater surrender to the Ranger rather than compromise things any further.

Which means that Benteen runs their fingerprints once they're booked back in the sheriff's station (under fake names, which means I'm expecting Bill Forsythe to talk about using code names for the bank robbery). Seconds after he has the fingerprint cards ready to fax to the FBI, one of the deputies tells him the markings on some of the shells from the shootout at Arturo's were Special Forces issue, and therefore not to be listed in the standard catalogues of bullet casings. Oh, and when Benteen figures out that he needs to talk to the D.E.A. about their man, the personnel office says they've never had someone named Frank Ralston on the payroll. Benteen might be a cowboy more than an investigator, but he's far from stupid and he's starting to put two and two together a couple of times.

In the cells, Coker and Atwater are trying to figure out how to break out and rejoin their crew; McRose and Biddler are waiting around at their crappy van at the rendezvous point and wondering how long they should wait for Hackett. They also process their feelings about watching a friend and colleague die because the operation went south, with McRose pointing out that the grunts always wind up catching a bullet when the officers' plans don't work out perfectly. Biddle's also steamed that his friend was killed on American soil doing an op rather than in one of the hot spots they're used to working in.

Meanwhile, back at the sheriff's station, the records for Atwater, Coker and Fry have been sent over from the Army's records office. Benteen doesn't know precisely what's going on but he does know that it's something big and secret if three soldiers listed as KIA have been in his jail in the last week. Add the fake D.E.A. agent and the real bank robbery and it sure looks like some shadowy conspiracy type shit has been going down under his nose. He leaves the station after giving orders for a deputy to stand guard with a shotgun and gets to the cantina, where the bartender tells him Sarita left with "an old friend" and went to Mexico.

Benteen tracks Hackett down and brings a loaded rifle to their discussion--and Hackett gives him his real name and rank, though he doesn't bother with the serial number. After being asked the perfectly understandable question about why the U.S. military is robbing banks on American soil, Hackett says that Cash Bailey has documents that would embarrass the American government stashed in that bank along with a ton of money. If Hackett can be believed, Bailey used to be an undercover D.E.A. agent who went native and used what he knew about the law enforcement side of the drug war to set himself up as a regional power. Hackett tells Ranger Benteen that he and his men can sneak into Bailey's compound and take him out; all the major wants are Bailey's notebooks (again, if one can trust the word of a known liar). Benteen goes back to the station and relieves his (sleeping) deputy, then unlocks the door for Atwater and Coker. Next thing you know, the four military guys and Benteen are on a rickety old bus bound for Mexico, with Hackett telling the Ranger that he's going to have to follow orders on this operation and Atwater mumbling about how he has his buddies in the squad and his country and that's all he's got in his life.

In a crumbling hotel, everyone sits around sweating and loading their guns. Benteen leaves to go talk to Cash, having been told that half an hour after he gets to the Bailey hacienda the four soldiers are coming in guns a-blazing. Once he leaves, Hackett tells his squad that the rules of engagement are as follows:  Kill Bailey, and other than the soldiers he's talking to, nobody in the compound is to be considered a friendly. I mean, we knew Hackett was a villain because Michael Ironside is playing him, but still. That's cold. McRose pushes things as far as he's willing to (not far), but gets his objections on the record.

Benteen walks into the compound while the soldiers take a quick peek at the place from a distance and mark the defenses they need to account for. When the Ranger gets to the front porch of the hotel Bailey's taken over, the drug lord himself saunters out with a bottle of booze in his hand and says Benteen can take Sarita back over the border, but he's planning to stay. Benteen responds by challenging his old friend to a gunfight, one on one, like in the olden days. Bailey can't back down in front of all his men, so he agrees to it. Benteen surrenders his gun so that he can go inside Bailey's fortress and see that Sarita's all right before the showdown. This is what happens when someone watches too many Westerns as a kid.

In the calm before the storm, both Benteen and Cash talk to each other about how much they miss the old times and wonder what happened to each other. Benteen gives his back story--he left the little map speck border town he lived in and went to a series of big cities, but nothing felt right for him till he came back home and became a Ranger. I'm not sure I was expecting that, but it's nice that there's a scene with Nick Nolte and Powers Boothe just talking to each other about their regrets and how much they miss each other. In several of Walter Hill's movies, things come down to a one-on-one showdown--think of the dueling guitarists in Crossroads or the unforgettable sledgehammer fight at the end of Streets of Fire. This is the first Hill movie I've seen where it's an actual Western-style gunfight that things are headed towards.

During the conversation, Bailey loses his cool, saying there's no such thing as right or wrong--just choices. He's made his, and he's going to live or die by them. But he's not going to let anyone take his empire away (which leads me to think that Cash doesn't want people to know he started out as a snitch for the D.E.A. if he's getting so angry about the possibility of giving up his spot on the org chart). He punctuates his declaration of his place in the world by shooting one of his lieutenants point-black in the head, then telling Benteen that the man was stealing from him. Which means that he abused Cash's trust, and he will not abide that at all.

Bailey gets himself liquored and coked up but good, nerving up for the confrontation that he knows is coming. Benteen rises to order a tequila and gets joined at the bar by Atwater, who tells him that the half hour of lead time has been cut in half and Hackett wants the Ranger shot on sight. Even a lout like Atwater has his limits, though, and he warns the lawman rather than going along with his orders ("When the shootin' starts, keep your goddamned head down" is his exact advice).

Before the shooting can start, though, Hackett tracks down that money-toting dude from earlier in the film. He says they need to destroy all their records because the Mexican police and the D.E.A. have worked out a deal that ends the protection they've enjoyed so far. I have to say, even for a double-crossing sonofabitch, Hackett's quite a jerk. I don't think he's told the actual truth to anyone in the film, even the men he expects to follow his orders.

Down in the bar, Benteen notices cops filing in right before Sarita breaks away from Cash and goes to him. Upstairs, Hackett tells Merv the money guy that he needs Cash's notebook, then shanks the dude when he won't release it without Bailey's permission. Before he can even clean the blood off his knife, McRose pops in to see what's going on and puts his commanding officer at gunpoint.

Downstairs, it's just about duelling time between Cash and Benteen; the drug lord keeps up a constant stream of patter about how things are going to go because he's nervous and because Powers Boothe sounds great talking stuff up and Walter Hill knew that when he cast the man. Cash declares that the duel is a personal matter between him and Benteen, so his hundreds of guards with assault rifles are not to interfere. He also complains to Sarita that if she starts crying it's going to change the whole tone of the enterprise and he just doesn't feel like it's helping anything.

While we're experiencing duellus interruptus in the courtyard, McRose figures out that the bank robbery was Hackett working off the books and without permission on U.S. soil, The only thing that went wrong for the major wasn't Fry's death, it was the other four sergeants' survival. Hackett wants a gigantic pile of money, and he wants to retire somewhere and try to forget all the awful, awful shit he did for his country. He thinks that's perfectly reasonable, and worth setting his men up to die in a mission that was never sanctioned by anyone in the command structure. Just as McRose is about to shoot the major, two things happen. First, the pair of duellists in the courtyard reach their tenth step apart from each other and get ready to shoot. Second, one of Cash's guards walks in on McRose pointing an Uzi at the major and gets blasted in pre-emptive self defense. Then his body hits the courtyard and the shit well and truly jumps off.

For every one of Cash's security goons with a gun there's two or three unarmed partygoers. Benteen's on his own, Hackett is on his own, and the four sergeants don't all know they've been betrayed. Which makes for an interesting running gunfight, because the various factions don't all know what's going on and who their real enemies are. Benteen, for his part, gets Sarita into a Jeep and flees the chaos rather than try to fix things on his own. The unofficial creed might be "One riot, one Ranger" but he's not stupid enough to think he can outfight everybody with a single automatic pistol. Hackett gets taken out by his own men, who are almost immediately killed by two dozen of Bailey's goons, and after the battle is over it's time for Cash Bailey to face down his old friend again. This time Cash just wants Sarita to count to three and the shooting will start. It takes Ranger Benteen telling her to do it for her to start, but she refuses. So Cash just decides to draw on his oldest friend. He's a rotten shot, though, and misses every time. Benteen empties his gun into Bailey after giving him one last chance to surrender, which Bailey refuses to take.

And then it's one guy facing down a couple dozen armed Mexicans, with Benteen negotiating his release by telling Bailey's highest-ranking remaining hench, Lupo, that it's time for that guy to wear the white suit and give orders. Lupo says gringos are crazy, and it's time for the Mexican cartels to just go into business for themselves. Ranger Benteen and his girl walk off into their uncertain future, and since this isn't that kind of movie they aren't going off into the sunset. Instead it's just a hot summer day with a whole lot of bodies left behind them and the promise that nothing has truly been resolved.

Man, why couldn't Artisan have released that DVD in widescreen? I feel like I missed about a third of the movie with the shots getting framed the way they were, especially in the car chase before Atwater and Coker are captured. Other than that, it was a fine experience, with a much more subtle and reasonable treatment of the drug trade than I would have expected for the penultimate of the Reagan years. Perhaps that's one of the reasons this flick doesn't really get a lot of love that I've seen, even among action fans and Walter Hill cultists. I mean, showing that the entire system is compromised from top to bottom and the requisite One Tough Ranger is barely able to escape with his life at the end of it? I wasn't expecting that in the least. And knowing that the drug gangs are going to continue smuggling their stuff across the border and do whatever they want? I wasn't expecting that either. Finding out that the super-awesome soldiers doing secret missions for the government were all suckers betrayed by their CO? Didn't see that coming either. It's the kind of movie I'd expect from Walter Hill, where the tough stoic men live or die based on the strength of their character. And it's something that flies in the face of virtually every other action movie I can think of from that decade, saying that problems are messy and unsolvable by direct action, even by a man who's the third Texas Ranger in three generations in his family. Hell, I'm not even sure he gets the girl at the end or if they just stick together till they're back in Texas.

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