By Nathaniel Poggiali
Celebrating its thirtieth anniversary this year is EXTREME PREJUDICE, a fast-paced and violent modern western in director Walter Hill’s inimitable style. The film’s convoluted script alternates an archetypical conflict between two childhood friends, one a straight arrow Texas Ranger and the other a drug lord and rogue DEA informer, and a special-ops unit, officially classified as dead, who have been ordered by the CIA (they think) to stage a bank robbery. When the two sets of characters finally lock horns in a Mexican village, Hill cuts loose for a brilliantly staged homage to the bullet-ridden finale of THE WILD BUNCH.
EXTREME PREJUDICE approaches its shopworn material with a much-needed sense of humor. As Hill told Irish Times
journalist Michael Dwyer in 1989, “I don't think it was understood how much genre parodying was involved in that picture. It rather mystified a lot of American critics….” The tongue-in-cheek tone can be felt in the performances (particularly from the late Powers Boothe, who is surprisingly disarming and funny as the villain) and Hill’s tendency to poke fun at genre conventions -- for example, in the repeated interruptions of a pistol duel near the film's climax.
The material was not always treated with humor, originating in a cynical and downbeat 1976 spec script by John Milius. Milius’s work, a post-Vietnam conspiracy thriller, focused on a Special Forces team subverting a Texas city to divert attention from their real mission, the extermination of North Korean-trained Mexican terrorists just over the border. (Milius would use a few of the ideas from that script for RED DAWN.) By the time the film went into production in 1986, the story had gone through at least four other writers, including Hollywood veterans Harry Kleiner (BULLITT) and an uncredited Lukas Heller (THE DIRTY DOZEN). Though updated to reflect the U.S. government’s War on Drugs, the script was tailored to Hill’s more visceral and less political filmmaking sensibilities.
Carolco Pictures, still hot off the success of the Rambo films, produced EXTREME PREJUDICE for distribution by TriStar. The studio hired fledgling screenwriters Richard Dobbins and Evan Slawson to develop the novelization. According to the book’s acknowledgments, Dobbins and Slawson were present on location and had access to the filmmakers and most of the actors, who provided “research and insight” into their characters to the two authors. At 271 pages, the book is unusually long for the novelization of a 96-minute movie, but it is a well-crafted translation of the shooting script with additional material clarifying character motivations and smoothing out the rougher edges of the story.
Dobbins and Slawson patterned their work on the final drafts by Deric Washburn (THE DEER HUNTER) but made some interesting structural changes. Although the script and film begin with the Dead List commandos meeting at an airport before getting their orders from corrupt Major Paul Hackett (Michael Ironside), that scene occurs roughly a third of the way through the novel as a flashback. Instead, the opening chapter focuses on Texas Ranger Jack Benteen (Nick Nolte) and Sheriff Hank Pearson (Rip Torn) as they bust into a crowded bar in the border town of Benrey to apprehend drug runner T.C. Luke, a fatal encounter that sets off the script’s many complications. By doing this, the authors correctly position Jack as the focal character while creating more of a mystery around the soldiers.
Although Nick Nolte portrayed Jack Benteen as a terse, stoic, and incorruptible western hero, in the book he is more self-aware and psychologically complex. His father and grandfather both having been Texas Rangers, Jack followed in their footsteps out of tradition but suffers enormous stress from his pursuit of criminals and the endless problem of the narcotics trade, as well as the knowledge that he’ll have to confront and probably kill his friend, drug lord Cash Bailey (Boothe). The weight of “unwanted family ties” appears as a recurring dream in which Jack slowly dies from a hanging noose. Compounding the stress is his relationship with nightclub singer Sarita (Maria Conchita Alonso) and Sarita’s romantic history with his friend. The novelization does a better job of explaining Jack and Sarita’s tumultuous relationship, including their cultural differences, and why Sarita leaves Jack for Cash.
Milius’s original screenplay presented a nightmare scenario in which the military rolls into a small Texas city and takes away the rights of its citizens, imprisoning anyone who fails to comply. Although the film never follows that story thread, in the novelization Jack expresses concern about the federal government employing the military for drug enforcement, fearing uncontrollable violence and the loss of civil liberties -- both of which occur as a result of military intervention in Milius’s script. In a sequence that does not originate in the shooting script or film, Jack attends Hank’s funeral (Hank is killed in a shootout with Cash’s drug runners) and, at the reception, he argues with the sheriff's relatives about the national ID card as a method of curbing illegal immigration, believing the private information would be abused by the government.
The authors provide back story on Cash and his short-lived deal with the DEA, his move into drugs and weapons trafficking, and the slow moral rot of his psyche, but they also suggest disturbing similarities between the villain and hero. During their first meeting in the film, Cash reminds Jack of a mutual sexual encounter with a girl on prom night. In the novelization, it is revealed that the girl submitted to them after ingesting spiked punch and a Quaalude and could not even tell the two boys apart during sex. As Jack carelessly recalls, “It wasn’t [his] style these days, but that was his first time and he was eager to take advantage wherever that advantage lay.”
As we learn in the film, the Dead List soldiers tasked with pulling off the bank heist in Benrey have been manipulated by their Special Forces superior, Hackett. Unbeknownst to his men, Hackett has been selling munitions to Cash, and he wants to get his hands on $10 million of Cash’s money and documents from a safety deposit box that link him to the drug lord. In the novel, Dobbins and Slawson detail Hackett’s recruitment of his men by visiting a military command center and dispatching orders under the guise of a classified mission for the CIA.
Surprisingly, the novelization excludes the character of Duncan Stark, first described in Deric Washburn’s script as a “model conservative Washington bureaucrat” and actually a corrupt DEA agent in cahoots with Hackett to steal Cash’s money. In the shooting script, Stark appears in only two scenes: at the airport meeting between Hackett and the soldiers, where he is introduced to the men as a CIA agent, and in a scene following the bank robbery, in which he and Hackett meet at a deserted adobe church and destroy the incriminating documents -- predictably, Hackett kills Stark to get his share of the money. Michael Ironside told Will Harris of The AV Club
that these scenes were filmed with Andrew Robinson (DIRTY HARRY, HELLRAISER) as Stark, but Hill discarded the footage during post-production.
With the expansion of this material in prose form, the commandos gain personality and back story. Sgt. Declan Coker (Matt Mulhern) has mixed feelings about his anonymity but prefers it to the rigidly “familial atmosphere” of his upbringing; Sgt. Charles Biddle (Larry B. Scott) is deeply skeptical of authority based on the country’s history of racially discriminatory legislation; gluttonous Sgt. Buck Atwater (William Forsythe) was inspired to join the military after seeing Audie Murphy in the film TO HELL AND BACK; and Sgt. Luther Fry (Dan Tullis, Jr.) signed up to be "zombie personnel" so his children would receive his death benefits. Another detail not included in the film: Fry and Atwater first met in the Phoenix Program, a Vietnam counterinsurgency operation that included among its military Fred Rexer, Jr., who is given story credit in the film along with Milius.
Meanwhile, Sgt. Larry McRose (Clancy Brown) misses the freedom to have a drink in a bar because of his Dead List status, and runs out of a coffee shop after mistaking one of the customers for a former girlfriend. McRose’s panicked flight seems to be a variation on a scene from Milius’s script, in which the Biddle character is recognized in a bar by a girlfriend who believed he had died in Vietnam; Biddle has to be dismissed from the mission when the woman notifies the police.
The two authors demonstrate skill not only with character moments but also action scenes. Although the final shootout –- in which the “zombie” unit turns on the traitorous Hackett and both the commandos and Jack have to contend with Cash’s private army -- devolves into mayhem, Dobbins and Slawson are able to create tension and coherence while also making the action beats distinctive from the relevant passages in Washburn's shooting script.
Considering their excellent work on EXTREME PREJUDICE, it was disappointing to learn that Dobbins and Slawson never wrote another novelization. Furthermore, their screenwriting career may have ended prematurely because of a legal battle with Carolco. The following appeared in a December 1990 issue of Spy
Richard Dobbins and Evan Slawson v. Carolco Pictures, Sylvester Stallone, et al. – The plaintiffs say that in 1985, “with the consent, permission and request by defendants,” they wrote a treatment, Rambo: The Holy War, with Rambo at the heart of the Soviet-Afghan conflict. The treatment was well received by the producers and went through several rewrites, but the plaintiffs say they were eventually cut off without compensation or credit. They claim the final screenplay [for the film RAMBO III], credited to Stallone and Sheldon Lettich, looks a lot like their treatment. The case is in litigation.