A facial hair problem

Walter Hill transposes `Yojimbo' into a Texan setting, adds Bruce Willis and loses the original's subtle comedy. By Adam Mars-Jones
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LAST MAN STANDING Walter Hill (18)

Anyone who can turn an ancient Greek chronicle into a film about teenage gangs in New York - and it has always been the claim that Walter Hill's The Warriors (1979) was adapted from Xenophon's Anabasis - is entitled to call himself the king of transpositions. Hill's new film, Last Man Standing, is a little less ambitious. It merely relocates a Japanese film set in the 19th century to a small Texas town near the Mexican border in 1931, with Bruce Willis playing the part that was initially a mercenary Samurai. The original film was Kurosawa's Yojimbo, which also provided the plot for Clint Eastwood's breakthrough movie A Fistful of Dollars.

Visually, the film offers the shock of another transposition: fancy suits - pin-stripes for the Italian gangsters, tweeds for the Irish ones - in an unpaved town. There's hat dissonance, too, with the headgear of urban violence - Homburgs and fedoras - outnumbering the indigenous stetsons. Vintage Fords churn up the dust in a landscape where we expect livestock. The only horse we see in the film is lying on the street when the hero comes to town, covered in flies.

Hill has made a number of westerns, but he seems much more at home with the hybrid genre of Last Man Standing than he was with the recent Wild Bill. The overlapping editing style is mildly unusual without being exaggerated, the ending of one scene superimposed on to the beginning of the next. The camera seems to enjoy the distortions of filming through flawed glass. Torrential rain, when it comes, shows up as twisting wires of black liquid against the panes. The keynote of the lighting scheme is somewhere between dark gold and sepia, but too crisp to be nostalgic.

Aficionados of Bruce Willis's acting will want to know about the state of his hair, both cranial and facial. He has more hair on top than for some time, cut short in a high-maintenance style (shaved down at the sides) but it seems much more Nineties than Thirties. Though they live in a town where only the undertaker does any sort of above-board business, the rival gangsters also keep tidy and live well. Where does the full table of food come from that the bodyguards are eating when they are surprised in the isolated house? Come to that, where does the apple come from that Bruce Willis eats at one point, so far from an orchard? Never mind.

Back to Willis's facial hair. In Last Man Standing he goes through two full stubble cycles, starting off clean shaven and getting all bristly, then beginning all over again. Since Die Hard, stardom in Willis's particular case has meant being unshaven and wearing an item of upper-body underwear stained with dirt and gore. The T-shirt angle is somewhat neglected by the new film, but the make-up designer compensates with a classic display of his skills for the scenes after the hero (known only as John Smith) has been beaten up. He looks more like a horror movie extra than a leading man, but that is also somehow par for the course for Willis. The closest he can get to vulnerability is simulated physical damage. It's not something he's prepared to act. When Smith is ambushed in the bath by the Irish gang, who have seen through one of his many betrayals and plan to punish him for it, a gangster asks, "You scared?" Smith replies, "Water's getting cold." Cut to his face, oozing blood, in mid-beating.

The trouble with the transposition of Yojimbo is that the transposer, for all his admiration, seems not to have noticed that the original is a comedy, though of an unusual sort. Hill uses a voice-over for Last Man Standing, and puts into it from the beginning a series of sentiments that would seem absurd if they were attributed to Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo: "It's a funny thing... no matter how low you sink, you always know there's a right and a wrong." John Smith has no past history that he owns up to, but he comes across like a jaded private eye in a film from the Forties, loathing his own apathy and longing for a chance to make a difference.

The voice-over is full of sub-Chandler touches, from the judgements on people ("She was just trying to make a living in a world where big fish eat little fish") to the thumb-nail sketches of places: "It was the kind of place where it looks like the special is chicken-fried steak."

When John Smith sees the woman whom the Irish gang boss has won as a gambling debt, he turns into a knight in tarnished armour of an altogether familiar sort. When she says to him, "My fear is my curse, what's yours?" He replies, "I was born without a conscience." We already know this is going to change, is changing already. When a gangster says to John Smith, "You only care about the money", he is careful to add, "I mean that as a compliment." The hero of Yojimbo would have taken it as one. In Last Man Standing, as John Smith so inevitably remarks, "Somewhere along the way it all got personal."

The two chief gun slingers, Smith and a "scary guy" called Hickey, have skills that would make any Samurai swordsman jealous. Smith has a pair of automatic pistols that seem highly anachronistic, though necessary if he's going to shoot each person more than 12 times each (and he is), and have the added advantage of somehow hypnotising his enemies into not attacking while he is reloading them with new mega-cartridges of bullets. Movies used to make a big deal about the drawing of guns, but not anymore. It's as if the big shooters in Last Man Standing have been equipped with an invisible version of the device Travis Bickle contrives for himself in Taxi Driver. Guns - even bulky tommy guns - simply appear in gangsters' hands. This represents a new and not particularly welcome phase in American cinema's promotion of the gun to the status of a body part.

Hickey, the scary guy, is played by Christopher Walken, something of a specialist in the portrayal of scary guys. Walken used to overdo the grimness, so that you longed for him to take his talents in the opposite direction, but he is pleasingly light and almost playful in this particular grim role. Hill's fondness for the character may be shown by his borrowing a name for him from one of his own screenplays of the early Seventies, Hickey and Boggs.

Last Man Standing would be a real return to form for Walter Hill if it only wasn't so cynical - not cynical within the movie, but cynical about what audiences want. Yojimbo is much more throwaway, more amoral, but what audiences seem to want is films where the hero's sidekick gets to say, "For a person without principles, you sometimes act kind of peculiar." It's hard these days to make a mainstream Hollywood movie that isn't about redemption, and somehow redemption and violence go hand in hand. It would be refreshing if audiences decided they wanted rather less of both.

On general release tomorrow