Sunday, January 08, 2023

The Old Way

I feel like I've seen more Nicolas Cage VOD-level movies getting a cursory theatrical release at Fresh Pond than I really have - this is really just the third or fourth in a decade or so - but that's still just enough to make me wonder if there's somebody doing the booking for this theater that really likes Cage. It's possible, or more likely, that he's got some sort of "top X markets" or minimum screens count in his contract and this is the place where you four-wall a movie in the Greater Boston Area, especially now that the Embassy is closed. Still, wouldn't you rather imagine that one of the guys who runs the theater that was basically purchased so that Indian films could have a home base is a big Cage fan?

It looked like I was going to be alone at first, but some more folks eventually showed up, one making a comment about whether there was a post-credit scene to this B Western, but if I hadn't stayed to the end, I wouldn't have seen someone credited as a "Bear Safety Officer" despite the fact that there are no bears in the movie. Did a version of the script involve the Briggses encountering a bear on the trail, only to be cut from the final movie? Is this just a standard thing you do when filming on location in Montana because bears are everywhere? It's not like this was ever really in the woods, either - it was pretty wide-open spaces, although I imagine a sufficiently motivated bear could cross them pretty quickly, and there was a kid or two in the cast.

One thing I was kind of curious about but didn't really think to pay attention to was that this was shot at "Yellowstone Film Ranch", and by the end I wondered whether that ranch has multiple wild-west towns or if they redressed one and chose locations carefully, because there are three different towns over the course of the movie, and I didn't check to see if they had the same geography. The last one, I noted, had a restaurant with some pretty modern-looking signage - "café" in slender lower-case letters which would not look out of place in a gentrified Twenty-First Century neighborhood. I'd bet money that this was a working café for tourists who liked the idea of visiting someplace like this but didn't want authentic Nineteenth Century beverages.

The Old Way

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 6 January 2023 in Apple Cinemas Fresh Pond #4 (first-run, DCP)

There should be more movies like The Old Way - honest western B-movies running about 90 minutes - being made and playing in theaters. Granted, they should be better than this one, where the makers often seem to know the general shape of the genre but don't necessarily find ways to make it its own interesting movie so much as just presenting the concept of "a nice, no-nonsense kind of Western".

Twenty years ago, Colton Briggs (Nicolas Cage) was one of the most feared gunslingers in the West, but now he's settled down, married to a good woman (Kerry Knuppe) with a bright but odd daughter (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), running a respectable mercantile shop in town. His past is about to catch up with him, though, with James McCallister (Noah Le Gros) recently broken out of prison and leading his gang to the Briggs homestead. Colton doesn't recognize that name at all, but he made a lot of enemies in his younger days, and he'll put a final end to this - even if he has to go through a U.S. Marshal (Nick Searcy) who figures his job would be much easier without a psychopath having a head start on his revenge.

For better or worse, it's a pretty simple story, with the presence of daughter Brooke arguably the biggest wild card of the film. Writer Carl W. Lucas and director Brett Donowho have a tendency to take the most obvious route when it's necessary to get a little extra information out, and the early scenes between Colton and his wife Ruth especially feel like placeholder material put there with the intent of fleshing it out once they'd pinned down how that relationship worked and never really did. It's the sort of thing that highlights how Ruth and Brooke are the only women of any note in the movie, and Brooke comes across as neurodivergent enough that Lucas is writing that rather than a young girl. The music by Andrew Morgan Smith is exactly the sort of music that goes with the wide-open spaces being traversed, and the combination of sharp digital photography and locations that are likely kept squeaky-clean for tourists (as opposed to being built to look lived-in) adds a bit to the "generic western " feel.

A large chunk of the cast is exactly what you want, though, starting with Nicholas Cage once again maybe not doing his best work but giving a minor film more than a lot of other actors collecting a paycheck do (even if he, sadly, only gets to wear entertaining facial hair in the opening flashback). There's a moment early on where his former mercenary turned merchant is stuck listening to a customer's long story where he looks more and more aghast at what his life has become until he seems to seriously be considering whether Ruth will forgive just one little murder that I suspect few actors even go for, let alone nail, and plenty of others he's clearly giving the character more than is on the page. It doesn't always work, which can also be said for what Ryan Kiera Armstrong is doing as Brooke - she and/or the script is much better when how she processes and displays emotion is not the entire point of a scene - but also one the sort where part of the fun is watching Cage go at least a little bigger than is necessarily called for.

ONe of the best things about a good western is a bunch of well-targeted character actors, and this is as That-Guy-rich a cast as you'll find: Nick Searcy, arguably, was born to play no-nonsense lawmen of this type, and McCallister's gang is a thing of beauty: Abraham Benrubi as the hulking but not dumb "Big Mike", Shiloh Fernandez as the cocky junior gunslinger, and Clint Howard as Eustice, all the sort of Clint Howard bluster that makes one think this guy must be one nasty piece of work to have survived so long with how stupid he seems to be. These are the guys that fill out a posse or a gang in good, memorable fashion even if they don't get subplots.

Noah Le Gros, on the other hand, seems like he maybe should have switched parts with Fenandez; he makes for too handsome and charismatic an outlaw to be in a movie that's not particularly about the handsome, charismatic outlaw - there's no place for his charm to go, most of the time. He also gets a big speech toward the end that's supposed to give the audience something to chew on, in how he counts himself as Brigg's child as much as Brooke is his daughter, because Colton's actions made him what he is, but it maybe doesn't quite hit right, given how Brooke's poker face isn't the sort of psychopathy McCallister and Colton display. One can see where the movie is going with it, but it doesn't land like it should.

If those threads had connected, The Old Way would have been a pretty darn good western, the sort that gets to an audience on a gut level despite being of this other, bygone age. INstead, it's mostly the sort of thing an audience enjoys because Hollywood doesn't make enough westerns these days and the tropes are satisfying even if the film itself is not what it could be.

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