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A Firing Offense

All right, buffs, let's see if we can get this straight.
In 1961 the great director Akira Kurosawa made a lightly veiled homage to American Westerns called Yojimbo, starring Toshiro Mifune as a cold-eyed samurai-for-hire who teaches an overdue lesson to both warring factions in a lawless town--now located in Japan.

In 1964 the stylish Italian director Sergio Leone made a lightly veiled homage to Yojimbo called A Fistful of Dollars, starring Clint Eastwood as the icy "Man With No Name," a gunslinger-for-hire who teaches an overdue lesson to two outlaw families fighting for control of a frontier town--now constructed on location in Spain.

This year an American action director, Walter Hill, has made a lightly veiled homage to both Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars called Last Man Standing, starring Bruce Willis as "John Smith," a detached hitman-for-hire who teaches an overdue lesson to two gangs of displaced 1920s Chicago bootleggers fighting for control of a lawless town in west Texas.

Translation: Enough is soon enough as Hill gets lost in a tangle of genres and a din of honorifics.

For one thing, what in God's name are two entire Chicago gangs--one Irish, one Italian, both nattily turned out in double-breasted suits and big fedoras--doing in a jerkwater Texas town in the middle of Prohibition? For another, why does the mannerist director of The Warriors, The Driver and Wild Bill shoot the whole dusty business through what looks to be a flour sack? For a third, when will Christopher Walken find work as something besides a cackling psychopath with a scar the length of a coat hanger running down the side of his face? For a fourth, how long will poor Bruce Willis have to recite dialogue from the bottom drawer of the hard-boiled school?

Example: "I been on the dodge most of my life...Drunk or sober, I got no complaints, even if I did get my hands dirty on the way."

To his credit (I suppose), Hill acknowledges that Last Man is "a hymn to the tradition of fictional American tough guys." But his stop in surreal, dangerous "Jericho, Texas" borrows so heavily from its sources that it has almost no personality of its own. There's lots and lots of gunfire, a la Leone's patented spaghetti Westerns. There's a sheen of mysticism, as in Kurosawa's samurai epics. There are dance-hall girls and hookers, as in every Western from John Ford to Sam Peckinpah. And in the end, there's a code of honor at work--even the ultimate drifter/killer John Smith, blasting away with a matched pair of .45 automatics, believes that "no matter how low you sink, there's a right and a wrong."

Unfortunately, the pieces make up not a film or a vision but a fractured exercise in style. When a hundred men die in the streets, it should be not only bullets that drop them, but some force of soul that comes from the filmmaker. For my money, Hill and Last Man Standing don't withstand that test.

--Gallo

Last Man Standing. Written and directed by Walter Hill. With Bruce Willis, Christopher Walken, Bruce Dern, Alexandra Powers and David Patrick Kelly.

 
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