Monday, April 20, 2009

Shoot 'Em Ups


A NEW WESTERN AND AN OLD ONE
, separated by a Great Plain of 37 years -- the recent Appaloosa directed by Ed Harris, and 1971's The Hunting Party with Gene Hackman and a surprisingly winsome Candace Bergen. Took both DVDs out of the local library last week, watched them, and as you probably guessed I'm here to tell you all about it.

What's eerie is how similar these flicks turned out to be -- like two long-lost cinematic cousins that came together in my DVD player. Both feature a ruthless gang of outlaws that kidnaps a woman and then of course the "good guys" trying to get 'er back. I put good in quotes in that last sentence because the Gene Hackman character (Brandt Ruger) in Hunting Party is such an unsympathetic sumbitch that you end up rooting for the kidnappers. Mean Gene plays his usual tortured soul here to perfection, even reveling in some downright kinky scenes where he coldly dominates poor Candace and then cruelly torments a terrified Asian hooker.

Now, I'm a pretty hard marker when it comes to Westerns both old and new, mainly because I've seen enough of them to know how memorable and effective they can be when done right. Sadly, in my opinion neither one of these merits a repeat screening (although my friends Bob and Holly had seen Appaloosa already and they didn't mind watching it again at my house last week).

Usually good Westerns -- especially of the more spicy spaghetti variety -- are less about the top of the poster stars than an interesting supporting cast of character actors: think Good, the Bad & the Ugly, think any Western Clint Eastwood made from '64 to '76. Hunting Party wins out in this measure over Appaloosa, boasting fine actors that you definitely would know from other movies (L.Q. Jones, G.D. Spradlin) and obscure actors with rugged faces seemingly made to play rustlers, outlaws and thieves. The older Western also just does a better job of avoiding frontier cliches, but then again there were probably fewer of them around back in '71. I think both movies are most effective when staying close to an almost Sergio Leone-like cynicism regarding the human race, but each fails to deliver anything as gratifying or offbeat as that legendary director's work.
In Appaloosa, new arrival Renee Zellweger, in full scrunch-face mode, first falls for lawman Ed Harris over his sidekick Viggo Mortenson, then goes for young Viggo, and finally even old Jeremy Irons gets in on the action when he later abducts her and let's just say tucks her in a few nights.

In Hunting Party, Hackman's wife, the future Murphy Brown, is seized by the Oliver Reed character, who -- get this -- kidnaps Candace Bergen because he thinks she's a schoolteacher and the guy is dead set on learning how to read! I know, I know -- the whole literacy thing is pretty far-fetched, and the movie gets weighed down by more than one tediously preachy scene where good old Murphy Brown teaches the alphabet to Oliver Reed. Yeesh, as they used to say in the Old West!

Appaloosa, despite the clueless blurb from Peter Travers right on the DVD box that the movie is a real nail biter, is lame in more than a few ways. It's a sort of buddy film with both leading men attracted to the same dame. Unfortunately, in between taking turns shooting bad guys they spend far too much time sitting around the saloon trading equally painful Western banalities.

This film would have been wise to have kidnapped a few of the writers from HBO's brilliant Deadwood and then forced them to write some scenes featuring that show's trademark lively frontier banter. If nothing else it would demonstrate even in an action genre like the Western, talkiness is not necessarily a bad thing. Unfortunately, however, much of the the "Appaloosian" dialogue is downright spotty, stilted and just plain boring for long stretches, nowhere more than in the unconvincing early scene where Harris, Morgensen and Zellweger meet in a hotel lobby. No kidding when I say you've heard more scintillating conversation at the local coffee shop from random strangers.
Now, as you might expect from a movie called The Hunting Party, there's plenty of cold-blooded shootin', and the weapons here don't disappoint; indeed, the guns play an increasingly key role in the proceedings. See, Hackman plays a rich railroad baron, and he's among the very few in the whole country to get his hands on a new model of high-powered-scope rifle that's able to shoot close to 800 yards -- or about twice as far as any gun before it -- with deadly accuracy. In fact, the rifle Hackman used throughout the movie won a Best Supporting Firearm award at the '72 Oscars, and was a big attraction at gun shows well into the 1990s.

Anyway, Hackman and his hunting buddies are on their way to a weekend hunt when news of his wife's kidnapping reaches them, so they soon set their sights on human prey. The rest of the film features Hackman & Co. methodically hunting down Reed's gang of dirty misfit scoundrels one by one, picking off like 26 of them along the way in spectacularly gory, Sam Peckinpah-like slow-motion cinesplatter. In the grand finale, after tracking his wife and captor through the desert, he slaughters the both of them before collapsing as the credits roll.

Ed Harris doesn't let his jealousy drive him that far in Appaloosa, taking Zellweger back despite suspicions of infidelity, but by movie's end I wouldn't have minded so much if someone fired a few rounds at old scrunchyface. Not saying blow her head off, just a glancing blast that shuts up all that dang overacting. Candace wins out in a big way over Renee as the better, more sympathetic damsel -- not sure what these movies are trying to say about the plight of women in the Old West, but as pawns designed to move a Western along and get to all the shootin' and killin' and bleedin', well, there are worse plot devices than a damsel in distress on the open plains.

Actually, there's a bit of a women's lib subtext underneath all the manly mayhem, in that Bergen's character falls for Reed's character, who, paradoxically, treats her better in captivity than her husband ever did in matrimony.
Out of curiosity, I just cracked open my trusty 2002 Leonard Maltin's Movie & Video Guide, where Hunting Party is rated a BOMB: "Fine cast wasted in repellently violent Western that adds nothing new to tired plot, unless you count the bordello-equipped train." Damn, forget about that last bit, Leonard. That was cool: Hackman thoughtfully providing hookers for all his buddies. Maybe I will watch it again...

4 comments:

jimithegreek said...

darn good

jimithegreek said...

Happy Bday bro

The Warden said...

Just looked up Oliver Reed on Wikipedia. Said he died while filming Gladiator. Check this out:

"Reed was famous for his excessive drinking, which fit in with the "social" attitude of many rugby teams in the 1960s and 1970s, and there are numerous anecdotes such as Reed and 36 friends drinking, in an evening, 60 gallons of beer, 32 bottles of Scotch, 17 bottles of gin, four crates of wine and one bottle of Babycham. He subsequently revised the story, claiming he drank 106 pints of beer on a 2-day binge..."... Read More

That's impressive, or disturbing. But Babycham -- what the hell? That's where I draw the line. I had a barmaid last night calling me a lady for drinking Bailey's Irish Cream. Imagine if I ordered something called Babycham on the rocks!

jimithegreek said...

babycham?????????