Directed By: Mario Van Peebles Written By: Sy Ricahrdson & Dario Scardapane Cinematography By: Peter Menzies Jr. Editor: Mark Conte & Seth Flaum Cast: Mario Van Peebles, Stephen Baldwin, Tommy “Tiny” Lister, Billy Zane, Richard Jordan, Tone Loc, Big Daddy Kane, Pam Grier, Blair UnderWood, Salli Richardson-Whitfield, Charles Lane, Melvin Van Peebles, Vesta Williams
A group of mostly black infantrymen return from the Spanish-American War with a cache of gold. They travel to the West where their leader searches for the men who lynched his father.
I remember seeing this film when I was a teenager in the theater. I was excited to see the film that felt revolutionary at the time one of the first African-American westerns playing in a major movie theater. It was an event almost in my neighborhood as we had never really seen anything like this. Just the poster alone made it look cool and dangerous.
What we get from the film is not so much a historical account. It is more of a typical thriller that happens to be set up in a western. The touches of having woody strode begin the film by talking to the audience is a nice touch and a nod to him being a unsung player in quite a few Hollywood westerns.
The film plays well. Though plays like a race picture as most of the Caucasians are ruthless villains. Except for Stephen Baldwin who is a mercenary who joins the group and ends up heroic. In fact most of the characters are set up in a kind of cliché one dimensional role then we discover another side to them.
Mario Van Peebles seems like this film is more of a starring vehicle to show off his talents and sexiness. As he plays the leader of the group the strong silent type who seems more interested in looking sexy. Like he practiced his facial expressions in a mirror to get the right amount of drama from his looks. Billy Zane is chewing scenery as usual it is rare that I think I have ever seen him give a sincere performance.
It’s not that I think Mario Van Peebles is without talent. I think that as a follow-up to his debut film NEW JACK CITY this was a right step.
I think the marketing was wrong for the film. I can’t say who to fault him trying to hype the film as a must see for historical significance or the studio. It is what it is at this point.
The film can easily be seen as a vanity project. I just believe as a director he is more of a genre director he is more of a genre director. Not necessarily biting off more than he can chew. He is more a director grasping at something bigger than the simple material he is dealing with, Also when you wear 3 hats (Writer, Director, Actor) you are setting yourself up as you might think being good at Two, might overcome the weak 3rd, but if you are weak at any that is where you will be left to shown your weakness and will be attacked for it. It will be felt that you are too confident and showing off. Ego will always bring people to take you down. Especially coming off, of an acclaimed previous film. It might just be following the success of his first film, is to tell a basic movie story but try to fit it in to a social issue or historical reverence. Though it still has all the trappings of a traditional western including treasure and a revenge tale.
Just something to call more attention to it then it would get a regular release. Something indeed taught to him by his father Filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles who has a role in this film.
The films weakness is that it just can’t seem to make up it’s mind about how it wants to play. It has heart and works with a bit of sentimentality towards the end thankfully it doesn’t feel forced, but looks manipulative.
Besides that the film entertains but seems more interested in like the poster looking cool. Then anything of real substance. Having said that it is still a powerful film at least for me. Seeing African Americans on the big screen and knowing that Mario Van Peebles directed it. Gave me not only a sense of pride but the belief that one day If I wanted to I could do the same thing. It was inspiring and powerful even though it’s not that great.
The marketing of course made the film more than it actually is. Though it does play as a western not a classic one, but one that has it’s own rules. It’s a nice attempt especially made at a time when westerns were rare. This one breathed a little life into the genre until Clint Eastwood made a comeback and blew everyone away with UNFORGIVEN.
As the film goes along we get to know the group more as a ragtag group of desperados who aren’t really that dangerous, unless they have to battle. There is a assuredness at work behind the camera. As well as a certain pride the film gives off that it eventually earns.
The film is agreeable enough with a climactic gunfight battle. Even a one on one with the original villain as over time the film develops a second villain.
Let it be noted that Catherine Hardwicke was the production designer on this film and would go on to direct the movies THIRTEEN, TWILIGHT and LORDS OF DOGTOWN