(Dedicated to Powers Boothe)
This cautionary survival tale tends to get overlooked when there’s a retrospective on Walter Hill’s canon of work. As a writer/director, Hill’s artillery is filled with bullseyes in the classics (The Driver), the cult (The Warriors), and the crowd pleasers (48 Hours). That can leave Southern Comfort looking a bit like the middle child.
Yeah, we pour our mixed metaphors heavy around here. You looked like you can take it.
THE PLOT: Nine Louisiana National Guardsmen embark on a weekend maneuver that turns deadly when they get lost in uncharted swampland. The squad consists of a motley mix of chest thumpers and chuckle heads. Our intro to this cracker barrel comes courtesy of FNG, Corporal Hardin (Powers Booth, glower given to a good guy for once). Hardin and wiseass PFC Spencer (Keith Carradine) are the only two with brains in their heads.
Especially after Staff Sergeant Poole (Peter Coyote) gets his grey matter splattered out of his skull. Seems some Cajuns – rightful owners of the canoes the squad “borrowed” from their empty campsite and were paddling across the bayou in – couldn’t take a joke and didn’t know there were blanks in the M-60 machine fired at them by squad dipshit, PVC Stuckey (Lewis Smith).
The Cajuns return fire with the real deal, topping off the Sarge. One man’s panic capsizes the canoes in chain reaction, sending the rest of the squad – along with their radio communicator – to sink in the drink. Quicker than you can say Deliverance, things go south for the eight remaining men in very bad ways. Lost in unfamiliar territory, the Guardsmen are hunted by the vengeance minded Cajuns. With every attempt at escape cut off or met with death, the weekend warriors begin to unravel.
The stand out is Fred Ward as Corporal Reese, a good ‘ol boy carrying the only magazine of live rounds. Reese isn’t in the sharing mood. That is until Hardin slips behind Reese and convinces him to get in a charitable live ammo, giving the squad a better Reese stews over the fucking new guy getting the better of him and vows payback. Ward gives Reese pure pitbull menace, establishing extra tension as the threat from within.
THE REBOOT: An opportunity for a great survival thriller, a genre long gone missing from the multiplexes. As the soldiers seek ways out from the muck and the mire, they’re cut off at every turn by an enemy seen only in glimpses. It doesn’t take a master strategist to figure out it’s gonna be Booth and Carradine left standing to square off against the raging Cajuns.
CASTING: The Guardsmen are scarcely fleshed out to play more than a trait or two, but Walter Hill is a savvy man with a savvy casting plan. For the his supporting squad members, Hill hired from a roster of genre actors with odds even track records between riding off into the sunset and buying the farm before film’s end. What lends the movie much of its thrill is in trying to figure out which of the squad bites it next.
To keep that uncertain survival element, producers should similarly choose casting. The idea is to cherry pick from the rough and hardy tough guy bunch. Actors on that roster include Tom Sizemore, Ted Levine, Wes Studi, and Mykelti Williamson. A three out of four score comes with the cache of an onscreen reunion with some of the cops and robbers from Michael Mann’s Heat. Next, shuffle a pair of Kevins into the deck. I’d go with Kevin Dillon as Corporal Casper, hapless Second In Command. With his onscreen offbeat delivery, Kevin Corrigan would make a great Stuckey.
The lead roles require actors that look like they belong with the others, but also stand out from them. Keeping realistic parameters of salary in mind (toss the “dream cast” list) here’s some smart casting choices:
Michael B. Jordan as Corporal Hardin
Last year with Creed, Jordan has proven he’s got the acting chops and physicality to handle the rough and tumble required in this shoot. While Walter Hill skirted racial issues that are still felt strongly in the south, it would be irresponsible in our time not to address the issue with a new Hardin urging the squad their best bet at survival is unity.
Scott Eastwood as PFC Spencer
His father not only has the market cornered for laconic performances, Clint Eastwood owns the entire block the market’s on. Playing the second lead provides Scott the opportunity to be in most of the scenes alongside Jordan in a role he could make his own to avoid the inevitable Clint comparisons.
Josh Brolin as Corporal Reese
Throughout his journeyman career, Brolin has built on the backs of knuckle-dragging characters of questionable motive, all the while managing to discover their pathos. He’s got the granite stare, fire hydrant physique, and bulldog-straining-the-chain attitude. Right now he’s at a career best and the best bet to find that wounded teddy bear deep down in Corporal Reece. And the grizzly bear.
Luke Wilson as Staff Sergeant Poole
Luke Wilson has a natural, confident screen presence that would work well as the squad’s staff sergeant. Keep Poole’s doom out of the previews. Audiences unfamiliar with the original won’t be expecting it because Luke Wilson has never had an onscreen death scene. The shock and surprise the audience feels at that moment will be reflecting back at them from the screen as the Guardsmen react to Poole’s death. That’s pure symbiotic cinema and isn’t that what going to the movies is all about?
WORK AROUND: Hill didn’t have to worry about running his movie by committe, but chances are you’ll be taking this reboot through a studio. Nowadays to get a picture made it’s part of an unfortunate system to let every department chime in. First thing out of Marketing’s mouth will be: “How do we sell it to women? There’s no female roles.”
Studios can’t resist a good gender swap and have I got a dandy. Mid movie, the squad finds a remote shack and encounter of a lone, one-armed Cajun (perennial Hill favorite, character actor Brion James). Unsure if he’s part of the clan hunting them, the sqaud leader decides it’s a good idea to take him along as their defacto POW. One guess at how that turns out.
In order for this gender swap to work, it requires an actress that’s believably butch enough to fly solo in the swamp, but she still has to be hot enough to get estrogen into the theater. That rules out Kathy Bates. My money says Ruby Rose would crush it. Preferably with both arms, but if she wants to have VFX lop off a limb, more power to her.
DIRECTORS: By all accounts, making Southern Comfort was no easy task. The bayou locations being the biggest hurdle. This reboot isn’t a production to hand over to a green horn director. Location logistics alone requires a seasoned director at the helm. One who has worked in difficult elements with a testosterone heavy cast keyed into survival mode. Someone in touch man’s primal side and can translate that machismo to the screen.
Two names that top a short list would be Peter Berg (Lone Survivor) and Joe Carnahan (The Grey). Both films featured groups of men cut off from society, battling an often unseen enemy as well as the harsh elements of the landscape. Both directors know their way around an action sequence. Berg brings bombast while Carnahan keeps characters in focus even while in the fray. For that reason, I’d go for Joe Carnahan.
RE-BOOT BONUS: If Luke Wilson signs on as Poole, chances are very good older brother Andrew Wilson comes as a package deal (he was the gladiator ‘Beef Supreme’ in Idiocracy). Picture this: Andrew plays the Cajun who gives Poole the Hemingway haircut. Who knows, Andrew could have issues with baby bro he may need to still work through (again, he was the gladiator ‘Beef Supreme’ in Idiocracy) and a cathartic role like this could be good for him. Call it the Cain and Able Easter Egg.
END CRAWL: No need for any surprise twists or dangling thread ending that sets up a cash grab sequel. Just get Kid Rock to cover Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Run Through The Jungle’ at the start and have him close with ‘Born On the Bayou.’ And hey, if you can’t resist a twist? Two words: Cajun Cannibals.