“Even bad men love their mamas.”
Mike’s rating: Better than the 5:20 to Scottsdale.
Mike’s review: The western is unique amongst its movie brethren. While a western portrays a relatively brief period of history (the 50 years or so post-Civil War, prior to the massive industrial revolution), its themes remain timeless.
We love brave gunslingers, dastardly villains, gunfights at high noon and riding into the sunset. There’s something about a good western that appeals to the bloodthirsty little monsters in all of us. We love to put on our best ten-gallon hats, strap on our six-guns, and buckle our spurs, and relive one of the most violent periods in our admittedly short history.
While literally hundreds of movies about the old west have been made in the ensuing years, all of them unique, most westerns fall into one of three categories:
1. The “Bang-Bang Shoot-em-up Fest”
These cowboy flicks are distinguished by rapid-paced, action packed gunfights, and quick witted, invulnerable heroes. Quick cuts, flashy special effects and gimmicks are all over the celluloid. Don’t look for much in the way of character development or realistic situations. Also there’s a generous helping of anachronistic music (usually hip hop or heavy metal). The heroes are usually way too young, and not near grizzled enough to be hardened criminals (I’m looking at you, Young Guns). The politically correct “untold story of minority cowboys” such as Posse or Bad Girls, more often than not, also falls into this category. You know, the western with an all black/female/midget group of cowboys who struggle against bias and oppression and overcome race/sex/age-ism with a high noon gunfight.
2. The “Sweeping Epic”
You can spot this type by their use of inspiring orchestral music, and broad aerial camera work over picturesque desert landscapes. Movies like Tombstone, Silverado, and anything with John Wayne. The heroes are usually larger than life archetypes. The villains are over-the-top baddies who have no problem shooting women, children, clergymen or puppies, hence inspiring the noble heroes to hunt them down like the dirty dogs they are.
3. The “Gritty Realistic Moral Drama”
A far cry from the oft-romanticized images of the thirties, this little sub-genre has little to no music and a thing for portraying the true old west in all it’s dirty, blood-splattered glory. The characters are dirty, despicable bastards who exist in a moral vacuum, and then you have the bad guys. Everybody is tanned to the point of being leathery, and in terrible need of a shower and some facial-hair grooming, even the hookers with hearts of gold. Examples of this type include Unforgiven, Dead Man, and 3:10 to Yuma.
Christian Bale steps effortlessly into yet another accent as Dan Evans, a down-on-his-luck poor rancher faced with the prospect of losing his ranch to a rich guy who wants his land to sell to the railroad unless he can make some quick cash. Unfortunately it’s about a hundred years too early to have a breakdancing contest, so Dan is rather crestfallen.
Enter Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), a rather charismatic outlaw who quotes the Bible and kills his subordinates while still managing to seem magnanimous. When Ben gets himself caught after a coach robbery, the railroad representative waiting for the coach offers $200 to anyone willing to escort Wade to the town of Contention. Once he’s there, he’ll board the titular train taking him to prison and eventually, the gallows.
Dan, thinking of his wife and two boys, volunteers, and finds himself heading across Arizona with a tough but over-the-hill Pinkerton detective (Peter Fonda), a local jerk, the town veterinarian (Alan Tudyk!), and the railroad guy, with a ruthless gang of killers in pursuit and a dangerous desperado in their midst.
I’ve always been a fan of a protagonist who doesn’t have any stereotypically heroic tendencies. I’m a sucker for an everyman who finds himself facing terrible odds, yet rises to the occasion. Bale does a great job with Dan, a man who sticks to his convictions even when it could very well cost him his life.
For a guy who starts out taking the job just for the money, it’s a great evolution of the character as he continues to move forward. He’s not a gunfighter and only has limited army experience. At every stage he’s clearly in over his head, but he has his principles. It’s a credit to Bale’s acting that when Ben starts to grudgingly respect Dan, and even like him, it’s believable.
On the other end of the spectrum, Crowe matches Bale scene-for-scene as Wade, a remorseless but intelligent and even amiable killer, who takes every opportunity to mess with his captors. This is a tricky part to play. If Crowe had gone too likable we’d never believe him as a natural born killer; too foul and we would have trouble believing him as a man capable of inspiring the kind of loyalty we see in Wade’s gang. It really is a tightrope and Crowe traverses it brilliantly.
There’s some great scenery as the group rides through the Arizona mountains (which having lived here for four years, I can tell you there’s no screen embellishments). The final showdown is nerve-wracking and one of the great “against all odds” scenes. Alan Tudyk gets yet another shining moment (SPOILER) followed by an almost casual death scene, and there are some real gems among the quotes. Bottom line, whether it be a shoot-em-up, an epic, or a gritty drama, what really makes or breaks any good western is it’s characters. In that respect, the varmints what made this here movin’ picture have rustled up a pretty good yarn.
- Man, if I talked to my dad like that, I’d be walkin’ funny for a week.
- That’s pretty slick, shooting the dynamite.
- AHH… the old stampede trick.
- Man, that guy better shut up… toldja
- Seriously, we all saw the fork thing coming, didn’t we?
- Arizona really is beautiful.
- Wash as the Doctor!!
- Wha? Luke Wilson?