You'd be forgiven if you think 1973's Hit! looks like a blaxploitation flick, with its DVD box art of Billy Dee Williams sneering against a fireball with a bazooka cradled in his arm. Even the story, with Williams avenging his daughter's death by going after the pushers who supplied her with a lethal dose of narcotics, has the strong whiff of cheapie drive-in fare. A nuanced if overlong look at the drug trade from its top to bottom, Hit! was made by the same director and stars as the previous year's Lady Sings The Blues. Though that musical biopic is markedly different from this particular project, the fact that Williams and co-star Richard Pryor had so recently worked with director Sidney J. Furie adds some spontaneity and looseness to this gritty, contemporary fare.
The scenes of contrast that open Hit! clue the viewing in that we're in for something different and interesting. The film opens in the slums of Washington D.C. with a young African American woman and her boyfriend seeking out a score. While Lalo Schifrin's subtly invigorating music plays on the soundtrack, grungy scenes with the man buying the drugs are intercut with scenes of well-appointed French people having fun on a luxurious yacht. Amidst the decadence playing out with the Marseilles crowd, the D.C. junkie finds that his girl passed out - dead from a bad batch of heroin.
Enter Billy Dee Williams - and he's pissed! Williams plays Nick Allen, a DEA agent who happens to be the father of the dead girl. Nick and his sympathetic, hamburger-loving boss Paul (Barry Strong, another Lady Sings the Blues vet) promptly track down and arrest the pusher with the bad stuff. When the man is put on trial and released on a technicality, however, the inequalities in the system make Nick more irate than ever. He decides to destroy the drug-running operation from the source. Armed with nothing more that a stack of paperwork pilfered from the office, Nick takes to a cross-country jaunt to find an eclectic group of people with family members who also fell victim to the drug trade. These include delicate prostitute/ex-junkie Sherry (Gwen Welles, who resembles a young Merilu Henner), college professor/secret dealer Dutch (Warren J. Kemmerling), dock worker/drug victim's widower Mike (Pryor), and kindly older Jewish couple/parents of dead druggie Ida (Janet Brandt) and Herman (Sid Melton). While the oddly sympathetic Barry is staking out the Marseilles gang's every move overseas, Nick persuades the others to take part in his wild but strangely plausible gambit. The group is sequestered in an abandoned Canadian coastal village for weeks while every little detail of the complex hit operation is mapped out and repeatedly rehearsed by mastermind Nick.
Although Hit! woundn't be considered a buried treasure of '70s cinema, the film has a lot of good things going for it - things which qualify it as a hunk of enjoyable, absorbing drama. One usually thinks of Billy Dee Williams in suave but undemanding roles (think Lando Calrissian), but he's surprisingly excellent here. He also has a great, jokey interplay with Richard Pryor, who seems to be ad-libbing his dialogue throughout. The film is somewhat pokey as it makes its way towards the climactic series of hits in Marseilles, but once that happens the effect is cathartic and satisfyingly done. The plight of Williams' character has something of a Dirty Harry vibe of frustration with the system that fits squarely into that Vietnam-era zeitgeist. Although Furie's direction is snappy and assured, the film often verges into being too cumbersome and weighed down with elements that don't contribute to the story in any appreciable way. Much of its running time is given over to long sequences with the drug runners spoken entirely in French (which might account for this film not being a big hit in 1973), scenes that aren't as fulfilling as the ones involving Williams and crew. Perhaps because the drug kingpins don't receive as much character development (they're pretty much defined by one or two traits, such as one lady being portrayed as an aggressive lesbian), we don't invest as much emotionally in them. There's also an unnecessary subplot with Williams being pursued by two mysterious gun-toting men, although these characters do participate in an exhilarating car chase sequence that may have given the young Quentin Tarantino a wet dream or two.
Hit! is one of several older mid-level Paramount productions that Olive Films is reissuing on DVD. Hopefully its re-release will spark a few new fans. At the very least, it's a good opportunity to see Billy Dee Williams giving a massive lesson in whoop-ass.
The 2.35:1 Panavision film stock that Hit! was originally shot on is preserved in this DVD's anamorphic widescreen presentation. While the grainy, somewhat wan image sports a moderate amount of dust and white specks, it's a handsomely shot film given a good treatment on disc.
Hit! boasts a solid soundtrack that is clear if somewhat unevenly mixed with sound effects and music that often overwhelms the dialogue levels. Subtitles in the French sequences are superimposed (and often subject to typos).
Hit! promises and delivers on '70s-style cheap thrills, but more importantly it also serves as a compelling (if overlong and at times implausible) look into the insidiousness of the drug trade at all its stages. The film benefits from a good script and direction; Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor's casual-cool interplay make it a memorable film. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and dilettante-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's seen are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.