Hill, Willis et al. were standing on the shoulders of giants when they made this movie and as such were on a hiding to nothing from the outset. They must have been well aware that there would be an army of critics waiting to pan their efforts regardless. But a good story is worth telling and re-telling over again and so full marks to them for even attempting this movie.
The trick to a successful re-make is to add something to the original. (and this is an official re-make, both Ryuzo Kikushima and Akira Kurosawa get a credit in this film, something which is missing in Sergio Leone's which led to Kurosawa launching a plagiarism suit against him.) For my money Hill succeeds with this brief on several fronts.
There are several small but significant characters and plot devices which separate Hill's movie from Kurosawa's and Leone's. For example Willis's laconic voice over adds depth to the character and explores his motivations, the added character of Strozzi's moll reveals a softer center to John Smith as does Willis' attempts to blend a sense of humour into the role. Another added character is the Texas Ranger, wonderfully played by Ken Jenkins, who is upset over the death of the Border Patrol officer. He warns that he can tolerate one gang in Jericho, but not two and if more than one remains in Jericho in ten days time, he will bring a squad of Rangers into Jericho and wipe out both gangs, effectively putting Smith on a tight time limit.
On the technical front Hill's film-noirish cinematography and lighting are first rate and the brooding sense of menace he creates is echoed in Ry Cooder's disturbing electronic, blues-style main theme. (Cooder did a similar job on another of Hill's films, Southern Comfort) The action is frequent and bloody, very much in the style of Sam Peckinpah including slow motion sequences which adds real weight and gravitas to the proceedings, unlike the Bang Bang, youre dead! comic book violence of a "Fist full of dollars". Another stylistic influence is Hong Kong cinema, notably John Woo with Smith's twin 45s blazing a bloody path across the screen. The film's production values are far superior to either of the previous film's as evidenced by Willis himself, a huge star at the time who is supported by a strong cast including Bruce Dern and Chrstopher Walken. David Patrick Kelly is dangerously psychotic as Doyle and in some respects reprises his role in another of Walter Hill's films, The Warriors ("Warriors, come out to play!") He actually believes he is doing Felina a favour by keeping her captive, "she only had one dress before meeting me".
Of course the film has its faults, there are very few films which posses non. For example Christopher Walken's character, Hickey is built up in his absence throughout the first third of the film as being the ultimate bad guy, however when he does actually appear he is a little tame. In fact he even tells Willis's character, Smith, not to believe all the bad things he has been hearing about him. Perhaps he is the anti-villain to Smith's anti-hero.
All in all it's a film which is definitely worth seeing, even if you are unfamiliar with either of the two previous versions of the story. Kurosawa's original was inspired by Dashiell Hammett's "Red Harvest", which was set in a small 1920s US town beset by corrupt politicians, police and warring criminal gangs. Its ironic then that the story has returned home via feudal Japan and an Italian western shot in Spain. As it has been 14 years since "Last man standing" I wonder if it's time for another remake.......
If you've heard this story before, don't stop me, because I'd like to hear it again.