EXTREME PREJUDICE ick Nolte, Powers Boothe, Michael Ironside, Rip Torn. Directerd by Walter Hill. 1987. Rated R. (IVE cassette, monaural, 104 min., $89.95.)

"Extreme Prejudice" was neither a critical nor a commercial success in its brief theatrical run, but I hope it fares better on videocassette.

Director Hill has carved out a niche for himself in the action genre as a cross between pow-wow Sam Peckinpah and languorously lyrical Sergio Leone.

The convoluted plot of "Extreme Prejudice" is appropriate for the bureaucratic paranoia its title reflects. But it does get confusing at times trying to sort out the good guys from the bad guys in a drug-and-blood intrigue that swirls back and forth between the United States and Mexico.

Nolte and Torn play two Texas lawmen caught in the crossfire between a drug empire ruled by the Nolte character's oldest and best friend (Boothe) and a mysterious band of CIA mercenaries commanded by an Ollie North-type can-do creature (Ironside).

Just about everyone but Nolte and his perpetually smoldering girlfriend (Maria Conchita Alonso) is gunned down by the final shootout -- and this may account for the failure of "Extreme Prejudice" to catch on, in its theatrical release, with the small fry who now root for the witch and the vultures against Snow White and the seven dwarfs! In an age when indestructible high-tech monsters are all the rage, Nolte's incorruptible, magically survivalist hero seems decidedly old-fashioned. Kids don't mind heroes being alive at the final fade-out, but only if the heroes are beaten to a pulp beforehand. Nolte never even gets his rakish Stetson rumpled.

By disdaining the New Brutalist Realism for more Homeric confrontations between well-matched rivals, Hill may be swimming against the current of popular taste, however depraved that is. Nonetheless, it is a pleasure to watch a master craftsman at work fashioning kinetic images that light up the screen with throbbing excitement.

Even when you're not entirely sure what's going on, you're swept up by the dynamics of the visual fireworks. Many of the explosions may verge on the cartoonish. But Hill is never grungy or squalid. The videocassette may turn out to be Hill's redemptive medium, at least with this picture.

VIDEO REVIEW MAGAZINE/ THE WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP