Showdown (1973)

showdown_281973_film29Sometimes all you need is two stars. That’s it. That’s all. Unfortunately for 1973’s Showdown, that is all the western has in its entirety! It’s got two A-list stars — a little past their prime — but little else going on. Is star power enough to at least make the proceedings interesting? Better read on and find out.

Chuck Jarvis (Rock Hudson) and Billy Massey (Dean Martin) have been friends for years going back to their childhood. They stood by each other through thick and thin — with Billy making that especially tough at times — as they grew up, eventually buying and working a small cattle ranch together. They finally go their separate ways when a woman, Kate (Susan Clark), chooses Chuck over Billy. Not wanting to stick around, Billy rides out while Chuck marries Kate and becomes a town sheriff. Years later, their paths meet again when Billy joins a small gang and robs a train in Chuck’s territory. Now, the old friends find each other on opposite sides of the law. Will their friendship last or will it be done in for good?

I figured Rock Hudson and Dean Martin working together would be enough to make a pretty decent little western. I was wrong. From director George Seaton, ‘Showdown’ simply isn’t very good. Released in 1973, it feels about 10 years too late. While so many westerns were going for the unconventional, the revisionist look at the wild west, Seaton’s film has an incredibly uneven tone with bits of humor, a love triangle, some jokes, some unnecessary flashbacks, and only then goes for a downer ending. In the meantime, it’s far too slow-going for its own good and never quite recovers.

Western fans will still appreciate the pairing of Hudson and Martin, working together for the first time by my digging. Their chemistry is solid, two pros trying to liven up some familiar characters in an all-too familiar story. Hudson’s Chuck is the worrier, the hard-worker, the cowboy while Martin’s Billy is the fun-loving, hard-drinking ladies man who’s a skilled hand with a gun. In other words, a western Odd Couple of sorts. I liked the idea here, but it never clicks. The flashbacks become repetitive immediately and don’t do much to advance the story. Through it all, the duo keeps at it and makes things mildly entertaining, but never enough to lift up a pretty bad script.

My theory is that a love triangle can ruin just about any movie, and that plot device does nothing to help here (even if its far from the biggest issue). Clark’s Kate feels like an add-on for the sake of adding on. Donald Moffat is good if underused as Art Miller, Billy’s vengeful partner in the bank robbery. John McLiam does what he does best and plays a condescending a-hole who you just want to see get smacked in the face (or worse). No one else really jumps out from the supporting cast. Too bad because there’s some stock characters here and there that could have been better with even a little more development, or at least some more familiar faces.

‘Showdown’ has its positives. Hollywood legend and one of the best cinematographers ever Ernest Laszlo doesn’t disappoint, delivering a beautiful, sunny western that was filmed on location in New Mexico. It is a good-looking western. The musical score from composer David Shire is limited but manages to shine in some late scenes. Coincidentally? The movie is much better — if still too slow — in the last third as the tone shifts to a darker path. Unfortunately, it’s too uneven getting to that point. Things get dark, they get bloody and there will be casualties. The tonal shift comes too late to save things though.

Probably for diehard western fans, or maybe diehard Hudson and Dean-O fans. Not especially good but not awful.

Showdown (1973): **/****

The Shooting

shootinghellmanRecognize the name Monte Hellman? If you’re a fan of low-budget, cult classics with some loyal fan bases, Hellman is the director for you. In 1966, Hellman shot two low-budget westerns in back-to-back fashion, Ride in the Whirlwind (flawed but pretty decent) and The Shooting. What’s the verdict? Read on.

A miner at a played-out gold mine in the middle of the desert, Willet Gashade (Warren Oates) returns to find one of his partners dead, one cowering in fear, Coley (Will Hutchins), and quickly discovers his brother has ridden out.  Coley says something happened in town with someone dying, but the story has gaps so Willet isn’t sure what truly occurred. It’s only a day later a woman (Millie Perkins) arrives at their camp offering $1,500 to the two men to travel with her to the town of Kingsley. Suspicious of her unspoken motives, Willet agrees with Coley along for the ride. What are her plans exactly? What is she up to? Willet can’t quite figure it out, but it isn’t long before he realizes a mysterious gunman (Jack Nicholson) is following behind them not too far off.

What an odd little western. Reviews dubbed it hypnotic, apocalyptic, nightmarish and any number of other artsy descriptions. Filmed on a budget of $75,000 with a ridiculously small crew, ‘Shooting’ is definitely an interesting western, just not a good one. Low-budget is rarely a deal-breaker for me, but going for a minimalist, artsy finished product instead never quite comes together unfortunately. I didn’t love Whirlwind, but I definitely liked it more than its filming twin.

There are positives. The minimalist tone works at times. This is a vacant, isolated American west. Little towns sprinkle the landscape, but blink and you’ll miss them. Few people are even there, and those that are there…not the nicest folks. Originally supposed to shoot in Monument Valley, Hellman and producer Roger Corman instead opted for Kanab, Utah. The filming locations are a bright spot, if a bleak, desolate bright spot. I liked that nightmarish story and all its potential but…

That’s all it is. Potential. With a movie that clocks in at just 82 minutes, the pacing is glacial. It…..is…..slow. The mystery is the key because we’re never quite sure what Perkins’ “Woman” character is up to. Sadly, we never truly find out. A violent incident is mentioned, but we don’t find out exactly what happened. The tension and intensity and building sense of doom is palpable, but it does not deliver. I found myself shaking my head at the ending where a casting choice seemed to be made to help the budget. I’m not the quickest person around, but when I’ve gotta research an ending and what the hell happened, that ain’t good. So as usual, my theory rings true. Is the build-up to Christmas more fun or actually opening your presents? I go for the build-up.

‘Shooting’ is undone by any number of things, but for me the biggest culprit – along with the script – is the casting/acting. I’ll watch Oates in anything, and he’s by far the best thing going here. His Willet is a cowboy, a drifter, a miner. He’s a normal guy thrust into an unpleasant situation, an anti-hero for a new type of western. It’s a far-more subdued performance than he usually gave. Why you ask? Perkins delivers one of the most shrill performances I’ve ever seen. I was actively rooting against her from the word ‘go.’ As for Hutchins’ dim-witted Coley, my goodness, what a naïve, annoying, doof of a character. You understand why Oates’ Willett is so upset. He’s got to deal with this dynamic duo throughout.

A young Nicholson is also a bright spot as a duded-up gunfighter just brimming with rage and intimidation. His Billy Spears is horrifically underwritten so we learn little more than that he likes to shoot people and beat them down. That’s the entire movie though. I don’t need everything spelled out, but something spelled out at all would be lovely.

A stinker. Steer clear.

The Shooting (1966): * ½ /****

The Book of Eli

book_of_eli_posterMy goal moving from Blogger to WordPress was to tighten up reviews, focusing more on westerns and maybe some war movies and heist flicks thrown in for good measure. Today’s review? A sorta western. A quasi-western. Or as Wikipedia identifies it, a “neo-western.” Call it what you want but 2010’s The Book of Eli is a post-apocalyptic western, and an excellent one at that.

Thirty years after a war tore the world apart, apparently ripping the ozone layer to pieces, Earth is a vast wasteland where water and food are rare commodities; commodities worth fighting for and dying for. Amidst this wasteland is a man named Eli (Denzel Washington), a quiet, unassuming drifter with a mission. In his possession is a book that could potentially hold the key to mankind’s survival. Books are all but completely gone, and Eli believes his book to be the last in existence. He’s walking west to the Pacific where he hopes to find something, anything at road’s end. His travel is incredibly difficult, especially when he walks into a small, well-guarded town run by an intelligent man named Carnegie (Gary Oldman) who wants nothing more than to get his hands on Eli’s all-powerful book.

Variations on post-apocalyptic worlds are all the rage and have been the rage for years now, from zombies like The Walking Dead to more light-hearted like The Last Man on Earth and many more. This 2010 flick from the Hughes brothers, Albert and Allen, was ahead of the curve in that department. What a good movie here. It qualifies as any number of different things, a western, an action movie, a road movie, and a faith-based story, even as an artsy film. The beauty of that is ‘Eli’ works bouncing among those descriptions. It is never limited and encompasses all of the above.

Like the best post-apocalyptic efforts, ‘Eli’ gives a sense of what the world has become. In bits and pieces we learn of what’s become of the world as some sort of nuclear apocalypse tore the Earth apart, leaving survivors but not in good shape. There is little color now – the Hughes Bros. desaturating the actual film – so everything looks washed out, bland and bleak. Wreckage and carnage line the roads, and small remnants of what the world used to be always hang in the not too far-off distance, whether it be a burned-out car, a collapsed highway, a decrepit home. This is one nasty, filthy world where just survival is incredibly difficult and comes at a high price.

Who better to navigate this world than one of the coolest actors ever? No one! Denzel Washington is a perfect lead here, a quiet, soft-spoken man who only reacts with violence when pushed, when his life and mission are on the line. When he does react….watch out. He’s equally good with machete, pistol or sawed-off shotgun. Just like the war’s back-story, we learn of Eli’s past in snippets, including the most important being why he’s risking his life to protect a book, even if it may be THE book. It is an understated, moving, and highly effective performance from one of my favorite actors.

Gary Oldman is equal parts The Man. He’s a welcome addition to any movie I’m watching. The supremely talented actor can bounce back effortlessly between good and bad, and he’s leaning BAD here. His Carnegie is a fascinating character, a power-hungry, aging man who remembers what life used to be. He knows the potential Eli’s book has and could have in controlling the masses. Their scenes crackle as two heavyweights go toe-to-toe to see who comes out on top.

Also look for Mila Kunis, Jennifer Beals, scene-stealing Ray Stevenson as Carnegie’s enforcer, Frances de la Tour, Michael Gambon, Evan Jones, Joe Pingue, Tom Waits, and an uncredited Malcolm McDowell in a key part late. Kunis is solid, but I still hear Meg Griffin, Stevenson is excellent as is Beals, Waits another scene-stealer in his short scenes, and McDowell? An interesting part considering one of his most famous roles, A Clockwork Orange.

I don’t have too much to complain about at all here. The action is supremely exciting and stylish, like Eli taking on small gangs of bandits, killers and looters in one rush…several times. There are shootouts, fistfights, brawls, and some cool car chases in the finale. The highlight though is obvious; Washington’s Eli taking on six hijackers in a highway underpass. We only see silhouettes as Eli dispatches the fast-moving gang, with Washington performing his own stunts in a scene that was shot unedited with no cuts. Damn impressive!

A lot to talk about, but I don’t want to give too much away. I’m not an overly religious fella, but I like the simplicity of religion here. It’s a story that isn’t heavy-handed but far more subtle in its portrayal of religion, and more importantly, faith. We learn more about that in the second half, both in terms of the story and character development on many different folks. The ending itself is beautiful, aided by a moving score from Atticus Ross, Leopold Ross and Claudia Sarne, and a voiceover from Eli. Quite the memorable ending.

Also – no spoilers – but there’s a doozy of a twist here. I maintain that the twist was a touch unnecessary but even re-visiting the movie, it works and generally holds up. That twist definitely adds a layer to the proceedings too, making things that much more interesting to contemplate and at least consider. You don’t have to believe it or even go along with it, but it should provide some fun, lively conversations. It did for me! Highly recommended flick that is well worth checking out.

The Book of Eli (2010): ***/****