Reviews of movies from my giant DVD tower, and more.
Released on September 25, 1981
Directed by Walter Hill
Written by Michael Kane, Walter Hill, and David Giler
Cast: Keith Carradine, Powers Booth, Fred Ward, Franklyn Seales, T.K. Carter, Lewis Smith, Les Lannom, Peter Coyote, Brion James, Alan Autry, Ned Dowd, Alan Graf, Rob Ryder, Billy C. Chandler
The Video Store Action Heroes—Mike at Mike’s Take on the Movies, Greg at Destroy All Fanboys, Mikey at Wolfmans Cult Film Club, and myself here at Cinema Monolith—are back to kick off our 2020 season with another collection of reviews with a ’70s and ’80s action-adventure slant. Our topic this time around was chosen by Mike, and spotlights the films of director Walter Hill, who between 1976 and 2016 helmed twenty-one theatrical releases, a good portion of which were of the action-adventure variety, the genre I most associate him with.
And my pick for this VSAH outing is Southern Comfort, a 1981 adventure thriller set in the Louisiana bayous, where military reservists do battle with revenge-minded Cajuns, and find out they’re definitely outmatched. I’d turned 17 the year before, and was now free to see R-rated movies on my own…but looking back, I was surprised to discover those movies consisted mainly of horror and comedy offerings, and very little else. That is, until I saw the trailer for Southern Comfort, and immediately added action-adventure yarns to my ‘restricted’ cinema-going itinerary.
The film stars Keith Carradine and Powers Booth as members of a nine-man squad of National Guardsman, who journey into Louisiana’s swamp country on an ‘overnight recon and patrol’ that will take them through the mud, water, and muck of unfamiliar and foreboding terrain. After borrowing three canoes from an empty Cajun camp, one of the soldiers opens fire—with blanks—on the unsuspecting Cajuns upon their return, who return fire—not with blanks—on the soldiers, killing one and sending the others into a confused disarray. The story takes off from there, as the remaining squad must now slog their way to safety—minus map, compass, and radio—while being hunted by the angry locals.
While the blueprint of the story has been used many times before (men out of their element fighting to survive), and the plot and tone are very much similar to that of Deliverance (and Hill’s own The Warriors, made two years earlier), what Hill delivers in spades with Southern Comfort—along with an engaging collection of characters and immersive location shooting—is a heightened feeling of tension and dread, that continues to build throughout the film after you realize…you never see the enemy! These weekend warriors, who are not elite killing machines but just everyday guys with everyday jobs, must not only deal with unseen dangers (like underwater bear traps), but unseen killers as well.
And it’s this tension that really sets Southern Comfort apart, and which was best exemplified by what I consider the hands-down high point of the film: its final fifteen minutes. For me, a tour de force bit of filmmaking from Hill that ratcheted the tension up to its highest level, a sequence that thankfully I’d forgotten about over the past four decades, and was now able to enjoy through virgin eyes again. And no, I’m not going to tell you a thing about it, except for this: it was simply outstanding, an unexpected but necessary coda—which plays out over the repetitive, nerve-wracking beat of a Cajun song—that drives you to the very edge of your seat, and then satisfactorily up and out of it.
This was my first time seeing Southern Comfort in nearly forty years, and yes, I loved it as much now as I did then; watching it again, I noticed it was more character-driven than action-oriented, and though it took its time getting from scene to scene, it still supplied enough thrilling moments—and the aforementioned suspense—to satisfy any action-adventure connoisseur. But what puzzles me is why it received such lukewarm and disappointing reviews back during its initial run, and why it seemed to disappear off the face of the cinematic map afterwards. For me, this is a well-made and entertaining movie that doesn’t get the credit it deserves…especially for that masterful ending. (8/10)
And don’t forget to check out:
Red Heat (1988) at Mike’s Take on the Movies
Streets of Fire (1984) at Destroy All Fanboys
The Warriors (1979) at Wolfman’s Cult Film Club