Young Guns (1988)

2011 #37
Christopher Cain | 102 mins | TV (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

Young GunsWay back in March, the ever-excellent Colin at Ride the High Country covered a series of films about Billy the Kid, including this late-’80s effort. To quote from the comments section: “I would have been in that target demographic too when I first saw it… around 20 years old or so… I wonder how it would play now to an audience of a similar age.” Well, as someone who watched it when closer to 20 than 30, I shall step up to the task.

Considering this is ‘the Brat Pack Western’, one might well expect a modernised, sanitised West; something like Wild Wild West or Jonah Hex; something rated PG-13. Instead the film seems to have begun life as a serious attempt at a Billy the Kid biography, right down to bloody violence that earns it an R in the US and even an 18 over here. This intention seems to survive — bar a music-video-styled opening, a couple of lines of dialogue, and the wailing ’80s guitar score — but how successful it was is another matter.

I don’t know about historical accuracy in this case, not knowing much more about Billy the Kid than I’ve gleaned from… well, this film, and Colin’s series. Playing loose with facts can work in a film’s favour — as many a filmmaker has noted in the past, they’re making entertainment not documentary — but it can be galling to one who knows the truth. In the way it presents events, this one feels accurate — things like characters appearing only to die immediately; the kind of thing that doesn’t sit well narratively but might be the truth. If it isn’t accurate, this is all the more dangerous: there’s a difference between changing facts so something works as a film narrative and presenting the wrong thing as the truth. Guns of the youngThough if someone was planning to use Young Guns to research the real-life facts of these events, more fool them in the first place. Wikipedia says (without citation) that “historian Dr. Paul Hutton has called Young Guns the most historically accurate of all prior Billy the Kid films”. We’ll leave it at that for now.

As a film in itself, then, the narrative is a bit scrappy. Our heroes wander around killing some people, racing about the country sometimes for no discernible reason and with chunks apparently missing. For instance, they head to Mexico just for the challenge of it — we’re told it’s a hard road, laden with bounty hunters out to get them — but the film cuts from their decision to make this journey to their arrival with a rapturous welcome. Eh? I have no idea if this stuff was shot and cut for time, or if someone needed to have a long hard look at the screenplay. Or even a quick glance.

The finale is also implausible. One assumes the characters who survive must have survived in reality and the others must’ve died, but the way it’s played here it doesn’t make a great deal of sense. How did they defeat those overwhelming odds? How did they pull off that escape? It might pass muster with The Hero Is Invulnerable movie logic, but not as a claim to depicting real-life events. Billy the GrinAnd that’s without mentioning the overuse of dated slow-motion that descends upon its eventual climax.

As for the Brat Pack themselves, Emilio Estevez’s version of Billy the Kid seems to descend during the film from above-himself hot-head out for revenge to giggling loon. This isn’t really character development, more as if halfway through Estevez realised how much fun it was to laugh and so kept doing it. Charlie Sheen gets the honour of (spoilers!) being killed off halfway through. As one of the most recognisable members of the ‘Brat Pack’, here playing the leader of the gang, it works as an effective surprise.

Kiefer Sutherland has the best part though. He’s given the only subplot that approaches anything meaningful and also almost all the best lines (not that there are many). The remainder go to Jack Palance, who isn’t around enough to create a great villain but makes a commendably good hash of it in his brief time. Equally brief is Terence Stamp’s part. I have to say I’m no fan of Stamp — everywhere I’ve seen him he seems awkwardly flat, often phoning it in — but here he’s not bad. This may be because his role’s quite small and relatively subdued as it is. Patrick Wayne appears as Pat Garrett for a knowing cameo; the kind of small role which any viewer can tell Means Something, but if you don’t know what he means there’s no explanation proffered (until the final scene, anyway, when Sutherland narrates a “what happened next” for the surviving characters).

This film does not occur in real timeYoung Guns is not a particularly likeable film, managing to miss both its potential target audiences: it’s not serious-minded enough for Western enthusiasts, let down by the Brat Pack cast and (it seems) historical accuracy; but it’s surely not fun or modernised enough to appeal to a younger (or younger-minded) crowd. Though clearly it did well enough as it spawned a sequel two years later. I didn’t hate it, I just didn’t particularly like it.

2 out of 5

Young Guns is on Channel 5 tomorrow, Sunday 13th November, at 11:15pm.
Young Guns is on 5USA tonight, Tuesday 30th December 2014, at 9pm. It’s sequel, Young Guns II: Blaze of Glory, follows at 11pm.

After four years and three months doing 100 Films, this became the first new film I’ve seen which has a title beginning with the letter Y — the last unaccounted-for letter. Hurrah!

Jonah Hex (2010)

2011 #59
Jimmy Hayward | 81 mins | Blu-ray | 15 / PG-13

Jonah HexJonah Hex is not a good film. Let’s just establish that, before I start being nice about it.

In fact, you don’t need me to be nasty about it — there are plenty of reviews that do that already. Those I’ve read are largely accurate. Despite that, I kind of liked the film, and not because I wanted to. I’ve read a few of the recent comics and enjoyed them, but this version isn’t really like those — they’re straight Westerns, whereas this iteration returns to a supernaturally-tinged version of the comics from some time in the past.

It’s difficult to know where to begin trying to praise Hex because, as I’ve implied, there isn’t much to praise. Unless you’re a 12-year-old boy, that is. Horses with Gatling guns! Giant cannons firing explosive balls! Corpses coming to life! Megan Fox’s corset-boosted cleavage! The undemanding pre-/early-teen is well catered for here. Possibly the undemanding child-minded adult too. I don’t think that’s why I enjoyed it though.

The movie is unrelentingly comic book, if one can use “comic book” as an adjective. Look at that last paragraph again: horses with Gatling guns? The physics of that boggles. But it has a certain Cool. The same for the ridiculously huge cannon that fires some kind of magic exploding cannonball. It doesn’t make historical sense, or even modern-science sense, but it is… well, it’s a Big Gun that makes things Blow Up. Awesome! A horse. With Gatling guns.Much of the film rattles on in this way. And rattle it does: 73 minutes before credits. As blockbuster running times spiral out of control, such brevity is almost welcome. It doesn’t feel exceptionally short, mind, except for when the plot occasionally jumps forward.

As the lead, Josh Brolin growls along marvellously. He deserves a better film. The character does too, actually. The President wants him to save America; he doesn’t care, except for that the person who needs stopping murdered Hex’s wife and child. Handy coincidence, that. There’s surely some drama to be wrung from that situation — grief, vengeance, all sorts — though no one involved seems to know how to go about it properly. The closest we get is a weird dreamy hallucinogenic fistfight. You’re right, that’s no substitute, but I did say closest.

John Malkovich does what he does as said villain. He’s been worse. Michael Fassbender is completely wasted as a henchman. I hope he was well paid. Megan Fox isn’t in it much. Her prostitute character, Hex’s new lover, is woefully underwritten and underused, turning up now and then to further the plotMegan Fox. Who has breasts. — usually improbably — or generally be a female. By “female” I mean “cleavage delivery device”. Considering her acting ability, her lack of presence is no real shame.

Jonah Hex isn’t good enough to be a guilty pleasure (like, say, The Transporter), nor bad enough to qualify as so-bad-it’s-good (like, say, Flesh for Frankenstein). Yet, while being fully aware it’s rubbish, I enjoyed myself. Not a massive amount, but a bit. Maybe it is one of those after all, then. It has a certain kind of B-movie charm, which is then intriguingly undercut by the A-list budget/promotion and awards-worthy cast. If it had been shot in Italy in the ’60s, a certain kind of person might just love it. Shot in America in the ’00s, however, its appeal probably lies with 12-year-old boys and… well, me, clearly.

2 out of 5

Seraphim Falls (2006)

2010 #30
David Von Ancken | 107 mins | TV | 15 / R

Seraphim Falls sees Liam Neeson and a crew of hired hands chase Pierce Brosnan across every Old West landscape imaginable — from snow-topped mountains to bone-dry dustbowl — but why?

In practice, it makes for an unusual story. It’s centred neatly around Neeson chasing Brosnan, but the encounters they have along the way are increasingly bizarre. It’s readily apparent that there’s some Meaning and Subtext here, one that’s somehow related to religion (note the title; the missionaries; the destroyed Bible; the journey from somewhere high and calm, down through peoples of slipping moral standards, to the heat-hazy finale), but I’m not sure if one has to process this to appreciate the film — it’s a still a chase movie (of sorts) after all.

Indeed, one may not even notice all the allegories until Angelica Houston turns up, like some kind of inexplicable but convenient phantom, shortly before the final showdown. Who is she? What are her motives? What does it matter? (Her name’s a pun/clue, but I’ll leave that for you to notice/read on IMDb’s forum. Suffice to say, it fits with the other themes.)

Most characters are painted in quick sketches, and as soon as you get an inkling for who they are they’re dead or gone. The only exceptions are (of course) Neeson and Brosnan, who remain ambiguous for much of the film. The truth behind their chase is only revealed near the end, once most everyone else has fallen by the wayside. As the only constants, the various situations and their reactions allow the men to be slowly revealed. It’s not really a character piece, but they’re at least more complicated than your usual Good Guy vs Bad Guy setup — the story has you flip back and forth about which you think is which several times.

Subtly beautiful cinematography complements everything. Without being showy or overtly stylish, DP John Toll gets the most out of the film’s diametrically opposed locations: the lush, snow-drenched mountains of the first half, and the dry, barren dustbowls of the second, not to mention the burning autumnal tones of briefly-seen Seraphim Falls itself. Having caught this in SD, I look forward to watching it again on Blu-ray.

Though at times ponderously slow, the fact that Seraphim Falls contains an easily-understood driving plot alongside suggestions of a Deeper Meaning means it’s both accessible and relatively satisfying, even if its allegories pass you by. Conversely, the eventual dependence on these themes rather than a clear-cut finale may leave anyone who hoped for a straight chase/revenge story a bit miffed.

4 out of 5

Seraphim Falls is on BBC Two tonight, Saturday 9th August 2014, at 11pm.

Texas Across the River (1966)

2008 #58
Michael Gordon | 101 mins | DVD | PG

Texas Across the RiverTexas Across the River hardly seems to be a well-remembered film — the only DVD edition available (as far as I can tell) is a legally-produced DVD-R, clearly in the wrong aspect ratio. I only come to see it because a friend happened to have a VHS as a child, enjoyed it back then, and we managed to track down that DVD. [It was later released on UK DVD in 2012. (Amazon claim 2007, which is clearly BS.)]

And actually, it’s a fairly entertaining film. Little more than a comedic Western runaround, it sees Alain Delon — as a Spanish nobleman — trying to get to Texas to escape the Cavalry (led by Jim Phelps himself, Peter Graves) and marry his betrothed. On the way he enlists the help of Dean Martin and his Indian sidekick. Hilarity ensues!

OK, so it’s probably funnier if you watch it before your age hits double figures, but it still has enough entertaining moments and decent gags that its complete expungement from almost anyone’s consciousness seems unwarranted.

I don’t expect it’ll ever undergo some miraculous revival (it’s not that good), and perhaps is of primary interest as a curio for fans of Dean Martin, Alain Delon or Mission: Impossible, but it made me laugh — and, as I believe I’ve said before, that’s all I really ask of a comedy.

4 out of 5