Loner arrives in town run by two guys with an affluent sheriff sitting in between them. Loner works for both gangs slowly turning each more paranoid and eventually against each other. Sound familiar?We’ve already had Yojimbo, Eastwood/Leone did A Fistful of Dollars and here the premise is taken to the prohibition era, but set out in a remote town on the way towards Mexico.
Bruce Willis in suit, hat and waistcoat is the lone gunman (with the notable moniker John Smith) passing through who happens to get on the wrong side of a couple of henchmen. This sees him drawn into a private battle between two gangs. Both are very interested in women, guns and bootleg booze. So our hero, Smith, plays both sides to his advantage and watches for the most part as the gangs tear each other apart.
That’s the basic set up and execution of the film. The film had a strong A-lister star in Willis onboard at the peak of his fame – OK, he was yet to do the big money hitters Armageddon and The Sixth Sense, but he’d completed three of his Die Hards and had also done the cult hit Pulp Fiction. It’s also a film directed by Walter Hill (The Warriors, Southern Comfort, 48Hrs, Trespass) and perhaps his last truly great directorial effort. And Hill regular Ry Cooder provides a large portion of the film’s music score which helps define this from the earlier adaptations of this story.
Hill also brought in his acting regular David Patrick Kelly (The Warriors, Commando, 48 Hrs, The Crow) to play the Irish gang leader and Christopher Walken to play his right hand man and best gun Hickey. Bruce Dern puts in a good show as an ineffectual sheriff.
The violence provides a certain amount of western clichés, but updates them with bursts of modern day cinematic violence, the like of which could be found at this time perhaps in Robert Rodrigeuz’s Desperado. Bullets don’t just kill men here; they send them flying out the door and across the street (what happens early on to Patrick Kilpatrick (the Sandman from Death Warrant)).
The film seems to be taking its time with all the slow looks that everyone gives each other, but it actually moves on quite briskly. Willis remains an enigma for a large portion of the film. OK, we get that he has a soft spot for helping the ladies, but we never get any indication when he’s leaving one gang for another or deciding to turn against them. He just does it.
Walken enters the film late and after enough events have come to pass for him to be pissed off at the situation. With scarred facial make up on, and at his raspiest best, Walken gives Hickey an almost sociopathic quality. He goes direct to the source of his problems and enjoys toying with his victims by removing hope, then restoring the opportunity for them to gain the upper hand only to take that away with a gun shot. Despite his villainous side and claims not to be the best shot, “just the best looking”, it’s almost a shame when Willis puts him out of his misery at the end. But it does solidify Willis’ bad ass self. But then again if they really wanted to make Willis an utter bad ass in Han Solo fashion he would have just shot him in the back!