Combustible Celluloid
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With: Billy Dee Williams, Richard Pryor, Paul Hampton, Gwen Welles, Warren J. Kemmerling, Janet Brandt, Sid Melton, Zooey Hall, Todd Martin, Norman Burton, Jenny Astruc, Yves Barsacq, Jean-Claude Bercq, Henri Cogan, Pierre Collet
Written by: Alan Trustman, David M. Wolf
Directed by: Sidney J. Furie
MPAA Rating: R
Language: English, French, with English subtitles
Running Time: 134
Date: 09/18/1973

Hit! (1973)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

The French Projection

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Billy Dee Williams should have had a better career. Until his dying day and for centuries beyond, he will be known as Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. But he has also made a whole bunch of exploitation movies, and there seems to be no happy medium. On the one hand, he brings a great, much needed badass sense to those Star Wars films, but on the other hand, maybe he was too soft, too suave to be a true badass. (He could never have pulled off Shaft or Superfly.)

But a dude as handsome as that and as smooth as ice cream should have had a better career. Hit! is an example of what it could have been. This movie was most likely born riding on the coattails of The French Connection (it's a story about Americans taking down drug dealers in France), and it was probably greenlit based on director Sidney J. Furie's previous film, the successful Lady Sings the Blues, which also starred Williams. But those dubious origins aside, Hit! is a super-cool movie.

Nick Allen (Williams) is a federal agent whose lovely, clean-cut daughter falls in with the wrong element and dies of an overdose the first time she tries heroin. His boss gives him some time off, and he decides to use it to take down the suppliers, nine wealthy Frenchmen. He spends the movie's first hour assembling a team, including a welder and all-around handyman, Mike Willmer (Richard Pryor, who was also in Lady Sings the Blues), a pretty heroin junkie, Sherry (Gwen Welles), and a sweet old couple with some unexpected experience.

Then they train for about 45 minutes, mainly racing against a stopwatch to make sure they can move fast enough, and then they finally go to France to take down the nine men, mostly simultaneously. Yes, the movie is about 2 hours and 15 minutes long, which is a ludicrously long time for an exploitation movie, although I expect that Paramount and Furie thought they were making the next Oscar nominee. Luckily, it relies on some crummy, lowdown rhythms and works in a fun way. There's no detectable prestige values or arrogance.

Furie was not the snappiest director on the planet, but he knows how to use the movie's draggy rhythms for atmosphere. It's always fun to watch Billy Dee glowering at someone, and all the supporting characters, including two weird hitmen that seem to follow Nick everywhere, are interesting. Pryor is especially good, and is called upon to improvise some humor from time to time, which is a treat. Again, this is the kind of stuff that any of today's mediocre directors would have cut out in order to move the plot forward, but which provides a movie with its true personality.

Hit! is a slow, weird movie, but it tries so many things we're not used to seeing, as well as relying on some old comfortable staples, and it mixes this cocktail in such a cool way that I'm very glad I saw it.

Olive Films has rescued this movie from the Paramount vaults and given it a bright, sharp Blu-Ray release. It has a welcome, grainy texture, which indicates how the film must have looked when it was projected way back when. There are no extras. But in a silly scene, one character pulls off a hit in a movie theater. Showing on the screen is Paramount's The Godfather -- translated into French -- though it's very obviously just a couple of title cards whipped up by the art director, rather than an actual print.

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