Arkansas Firemen Vince (Bill Paxton) and Don (William Sadler) are attending to their duties in a burning apartment building when they stumble upon an old man who is ranting and raving about a stash of gold. They try to persuade him to come with them, but he presses a parcel of clippings into their hands and perishes in the flames. Later, back at the station, they discuss what this means and work out that a fifty-year-old theft of Greek treasures must be stashed away in an abandoned building in East St. Louis, so resolve to head over there as promptly as their job allows to retrieve it from its hiding place. They could do with the money this will bring, especially divorced Don, but what they don’t know is that the area they're going to is not entirely deserted...
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, that classic John Huston film, was the inspiration for screenwriters Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale when they penned the script for Trespass back in the nineteen-seventies. That lay undisturbed and resolutely unmade until director Walter Hill got a hold of it a couple of decades later and saw great potential in it, and so it was with two of the hottest hip-hop talents around on board as the main gangsters, Ice-T and Ice Cube, it was all set to be a big summer hit. Although it sounded like stunt casting, they were actually very effective, not exactly cast against type but given carte blanche to embellish their own dialogue and brush it up to early nineties gangsta standards.
This made the results a lot more "street" and though the two rappers, who collaborated on the songs on the soundtrack (Hill's old buddy Ry Cooder taking care of the instrumental business), were playing up to their tough guy image in a manner they would not necessarily continue to do with any huge dedication for the rest of their careers, they remained a convincing threat to Vince and Don. That pair were essayed by two cult actors getting a chance at lead roles, though in effect this was an ensemble piece, and no less welcome than Ice-T and Ice Cube, emphasising the racial tensions in the story not by having the two sides fling prejudice at one another, but by having them act out a scenario of genuine animosity.
Which was why Trespass flopped, alas. It had the poor fortune to be released in the year of American racial tensions ramped up to explosive levels when the Los Angeles riots occurred, and though its title was changed from Looters and its opening date was pushed back so as not to make things worse, even when it was out nobody was really interested in seeing a fictional representation of the violence that had been all too real and not something they felt was fit for entertainment. This was a pity, because it's not as if the film wore its politics on its sleeve, it was an action thriller first and a think piece second, some would say a distant second, more keen on offering its cast - all male, mostly African American - a chance or two to flex their tough guy muscles in a production well suited to macho standoffs and plenty of them.
That this was directed by Hill, one of the cultiest of the action filmmakers to emerge from the seventies, was not lost on those who did make a point of ignoring the news stories and concentrating on the suspense. He was well-known as a big fan of Westerns, so combining Sierra Madre with the siege premise of Rio Bravo, with a hint of Night of the Living Dead thrown in (though the zombie equivalents here were both smart and heavily armed) could have slotted very well into that genre, and you could argue yes, it already had many times before. So fair enough, there wasn’t much new here, but what new there was rendered a palpable sense of urban grit when the gangstas making headlines were the antagonists, and the supposed good guys had no intention of handing back the treasure should they find it. A nice touch was the gang members were a lot more technically savvy than the interlopers, carrying mobile phones, a video camera and high-tech automatic weapons, but it was the traditional tone to the action that sold a basic, but underrated thriller.