Pistol Packin’ PICTURES

With the star-studded remake of The Magnificent Seven about to open, it’s clear that the Western is anything but dead. In fact, within the past year alone several noteworthy films tackled what was once Hollywood’s most popular genre though only one — Tarantino’s bloated, self-indulgent The Hateful Eight — got any real big screen time. However, many of the smaller Westerns, like Kurt Russell’s Bone Tomahawk, have deservedly thrived on home video.

Three recent releases on the home market video are each distinguished by curious casting choices, which alone might make fans of the genre take notice. Diablo stars Clint Eastwood’s son Scott in his first oater while the Sutherland team of dad Donald and son Kiefer headline Forsaken. Oscar winner Natalie Portman straps on the hardware in Jane Got a Gun, the biggest budgeted of the three with Ewan McGregor (the former Obi-Wan himself) as the nasty villain.

Diablo can claim the most unusual plot of the three, but it is also the weakest in terms of quality. Eastwood, looking at times uncannily like his father, plays Jackson, a Civil War veteran whose wife is kidnapped at the beginning of the film. Naturally, he goes after her, encountering all kinds of problems along the way until the final shootout.

What sounds like a familiar Western plot grows odd and strange with the appearance of Ezra (Walton Goggins of TV’s Justified), a cold-blooded killer with an unusual affinity for Jackson, despite the latter’s efforts to distance himself. A psychological plot twist with about a third of the film to go lets the cat out of the bag, along with whatever credibility the film might initially have claimed.

Though the film looks great, Diablo is ultimately unconvincing, like Scott Eastwood as the steely-eyed killer. The best thing about the film, other than its cinematography, is Walton Goggins, and he is not in it enough. Still, Western fans might want to give it a look and who knows? Maybe some will dig the plot gimmick.

Forsaken, on the other hand, never deviates from a tried ‘n’ true Western trope, but nonetheless hits the bulls eye. Like Shane and numerous other similar films, the story is about a gunfighter who rides into town, trying to put his past behind him, but is eventually forced to resume his natural calling to save the day for everyone else.

Kiefer Sutherland is absolutely convincing as John Henry Clayton, a Civil War veteran-turned-gunfighter who returns home to his alienated preacher father (Donald Sutherland, looking like Jehovah himself with his white beard and mane), in a quest for redemption from his bloody past. Brian Cox plays the ruthless land baron trying to claim the settlers’ homes for his own while Demi Moore has a nice role as the girl John Henry left behind.

We all know what’s going to happen. John Henry is going to try to please dad and put aside his gun, but the bad guys will keep pushing him until he has no other choice but to strap on the six-shooter and take out the trash. John Wayne, Alan Ladd, Errol Flynn, Clint Eastwood, and Henry Fonda did it time and again, and we never grew tired of watching them. Kiefer Sutherland joins their ranks in Forsaken.

The cinematography, as in Diablo, captures the visual essence of the classic Western, but the acting and direction are also uniformly solid. The final gunfight, unlike the one in Diablo, rewards the suspenseful build-up. Otherwise, there are no real surprises, just the pleasure of watching a familiar story told again very well, just like we hoped.

Jane Got a Gun had to overcome all sorts of major pre-production problems involving changing directors and major cast members that helped generate negative publicity and reluctant distribution. However, the final result betrays none of those difficulties. Instead, we have a solid traditional Western with a sophisticated story, credible characters, solid performances, lots of drama, and plenty of action.

The plot is similar to Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs told through a series of flashbacks. Having gone through one kind of hell after another, Jane (Portman) is forced to defend her home from a bunch of nasties, led by an almost unrecognizable McGregor. Relationships are complicated by the fact that her present husband (Noah Emmerich) is wounded and helpless while her former fiancé (Joel Edgerton) is reluctantly recruited to their defense.

More ambitious in terms of production and story than either of the two earlier films, Jane Got a Gun wears its genre trappings well. The performers are all excellent as is the direction by Gavin O’Connor (Warrior). Western fans in particular do not want to miss this one.