Buckle up, everyone. Once again, the absence of a steady One Piece supply led us to gorge ourselves on feature films, as we feasted on a diverse array of recent flicks, classics, and genre oddballs. Having already watched plenty of the acclaimed spaghetti and revisionist westerns, it’s been interesting to push backwards into westerns’ original golden age. Westerns dominated Hollywood for years, but these days, their most lasting cultural influence is tied to movies that dispel the myth of the heroic cowboy. As a result, diving deeper into westerns has provided fascinating context for the films I’ve already seen, helping to fill in the dialogue that Sergio Leone and others were in conversation with. So let’s start with some westerns then, as we barrel through another Week in Review!
First up this week was Stagecoach, with John Ford directing John Wayne in his breakout role as the “Ringo Kid.” The film follows a stagecoach’s worth of odd characters across the western wilderness, as they race to outrun Apache raids, while also negotiating the odd tensions of their cultural differences. John Ford is a reliable craftsman of top-shelf entertainment, and goddamn does Stagecoach entertain. The film is stuffed full of memorable bit characters, and maintains an intense sense of momentum across its efficient runtime. Some classic films require a little accommodation for the more patient sensibilities of a pre-television era; not so for Stagecoach, which could serve as a thrilling blockbuster in basically any era. If you’re looking to be eased into classic westerns, or just looking for a damn fine time at the movies, Stagecoach comes highly recommended.
After that was El Dorado, another John Wayne film, though separated from Stagecoach by almost three decades of stardom. Wayne stars as an old soldier who, in spite of his best intentions, ends up serving as the last line of defense for a family being forced off their land. Along with a dubious band of allies that include a drunken sheriff and a knife-flinging kid, he must fight back against a group of hired killers, and maintain order in an unruly town.
Following the crisp efficiency and dramatic generosity of Stagecoach, El Dorado felt oddly bloated in a few ways. Advertised for its humor as much as its excitement, El Dorado does indeed try to be funny, though the results are mixed. I much enjoyed the film’s wry deflation of “heroic chivalry,” and the general myths attached to the legacy of cowboys; on the other hand, I could have done without the half-hour of clumsy slapstick dedicated to sobering up the sheriff, or the staggeringly racist disguise scene.
Fortunately, El Dorado also offers a full meal’s worth of adventure, along with plenty of fun interactions between John Wayne and his would-be apprentice. Wayne frankly seemed a little checked out for this film, but Christopher George turns in a terrific performance as the menacing crack shot McLeod. His character adds a compelling note of ambiguity to the narrative; though he works for a ruthless capitalist, McLeod himself is a genuine “noble cowboy,” obeying rules of chivalry that were already archaic in the age of gunpowder. His presence, along with the film’s generous allocation of action setpieces, sooth the aches of a fairly uneven ride.
After that we watched The Lodge, a recent horror film about a woman forced to retreat to a lodge with her lover’s two children, who have every reason to see her as their dead mother’s replacement. Strange occurrences swiftly ensue, leading to the question of what is real, what is being fabricated by the kids, and what is emerging from the recesses of our lead’s cult childhood.
The Lodge is an emphatically Okay movie in basically all regards. It seems intent on occupying a space between psychological drama and horror, but the characters are too broad for genuine character drama, while the scares are too thin for genuine horror. The film’s best features are its all-encompassing wintry tone, as well as a strong lead performance by Riley Keough – but ultimately, those aren’t enough for me to recommend it to anyone beyond horror completionists.
Next we checked out one of Luc Besson’s most acclaimed films, Leon: The Professional. Leon stars Jean Reno as the titular assassin and Natalie Portman in her acting debut, as a young girl he begrudgingly takes on as an apprentice.
Leon is an undeniably cool film – the kind of film that, if you come across it as a teenager, might set your style for a year or two. This is a quality it shares with other notable Besson features like The Fifth Element and La Femme Nikita, a quality that slots it into the loosely defined “Cinéma du look” movement. Besson’s greatest films feature stylishly dressed characters who are all a little broken, interacting with sets constructed of clean geometric layouts and colorful, highly ornamented mise-en-scène. Though its New York City venue lends itself to slightly more cinematic naturalism than something like The Fifth Element, Leon is still a persistent joy to watch, a series of visual puzzles that feel as precise in their execution as Leon’s gun handling.
Along with Besson’s excellent direction, Leon also serves as a fine showcase for its two leads. Jean Reno is an asset to any film that can grab him; he is equally capable of sneering confidence and trembling submission, and in Leon he offers a convincing portrait of a man who’s ostensibly dangerous, but also childlike in his emotional development. He never overstates his fondness for his adopted daughter, letting his quiet glances make up for his character’s inarticulate nature. Meanwhile, Portman possesses a fire and singularity of purpose that would seem impossible for such a young actress, and deftly embodies the slanted life experience of a drug handler’s daughter. A generous, engaging watch.
Next up was Streets of Fire, a film that I’ve been told is both a glorious mess, and also a key inspiring work for a bunch of subsequent anime. It’s not hard to believe that’s the case; Streets of Fire is anime as hell, billing itself as a “Rock ‘n Roll Fable,” and centering on a strange fantasy land where bikers and rockers battle in the streets.
Streets of Fire is indeed an absolute mess of a film. Once we move past the inspiring incident of “those bikers have kidnapped a rock star,” it rapidly devolves into an incoherent series of confrontations and chases, with no real connective tissue or emotional stakes. Even worse, the film’s star just plain can’t act. Michael Paré’s Tom Cody (stupid name) is clearly intended to be some kind of inspiring rebel, the sort of character Harrison Ford played in a bunch of his classic roles. But Paré is incapable of any emotional expression beyond “huh” or “okay,” and delivers all of his lines in a bored monotone, so it’s impossible to feel attached to him in any way. I’m not sure whether it came down to a misguided desire for a “stoic” performance or Paré’s own limited abilities, but he is a black hole of charisma that drags everything down with him.
Fortunately, Streets of Fire also stars Willem fucking Dafoe as its insane biker antagonist, from back before the world had realized how good he is. Dafoe chews through scenery like a grease-topped piranha, and acts circles around everyone else in the film. Absurd sequences like Dafoe in a pair of black leather overalls, screaming to the heavens before a sea of fire, are almost worth the price of entry by themselves. Ultimately, Streets of Fire is definitely not a “good” movie, but is such a weird movie that I certainly didn’t regret the viewing. There’s not so much distance between an off-kilter masterpiece and a magnificent mistake.
We then watched We Are Still Here, a 2015 horror film about a couple who move to a quiet town in New England, still overwhelmed by the recent death of their son. I picked out this one because I was informed it was one of the scariest films of 2015, potentially eclipsing even It Follows. Well, We Are Still Here didn’t actually beat It Follows for scares (can anything? Please, I genuinely want to know), but it still possessed some pretty good ones. As you might expect from the title, the couple’s new home still possesses the remnants of its prior occupants, and they make themselves known in a variety of delightfully chilling ways.
The film relies heavily on jump scares, but that’s not really a weakness. For as bad a rap as they get, jump scares are a fine horror conceit – they just tend to be overused by films that lack more substantive or atmospheric scares. We Are Still Here employs them judiciously and with satisfying visual execution, culminating in a delightfully chaotic finale. Rather than leaning into the art-horror complexity of an Aster or Eggers, writer/director Ted Geoghehan crafts a sturdy, unassuming horror film in a more traditional mold. A very satisfying watch.
Finally, our last feature of the week was Riders of Justice, a Danish action comedy. The film stars Mads Mikkelsen as Markus, a long-time soldier who only returns from the front when his wife is killed in a train accident, leaving him and his distant daughter behind. Markus is utterly unsuited for conversation or civilian living, and is only given a sense of purpose when a trio of odd nerds show up in his driveway, claiming the train wreck wasn’t an accident after all. Combining Markus’ brawn with his new friends’ mastery of hacking and statistical analysis, the team hunt down the gang responsible, hoping to exorcise their own demons along the way.
It would have been easy enough for Riders of Justice to succeed purely as a revenge thriller, stacked as it is with such a compelling cast. Mads Mikkelsen is one of the great actors of our era, possessing one of those De Niro-like faces whose cracks and wrinkles can be conducted like a grand orchestra, evoking subtleties of grief and longing without a word. With Mads’ grief and solemnity never in question, the film is able to establish a hilarious contrast between his unimpeachable straight man and the quirky, frequently immature behavior of his geeky collaborators. Neither side is a punchline; both Mads and his new friends have been beaten by the world, tested in ways that bent them into shapes unfit for society. Through their interactions, we see old wounds reopen as they attempt to move closer, with the film conjuring a marvelous medley of poignant human perspectives.
And then, beyond its successes as a thriller, comedy, and character study, Riders of Justice also serves as a fascinating exploration of faith and fate. Mads’ companions are not religious in the traditional sense, but their belief in statistical inevitabilities serves as its own kind of faith, implying a certain kind of order in the world. Mads’ daughter covers her bedroom wall in sticky notes, building up a series of sequential events, desperate to determine the one mistake that doomed her mother. And Mads himself clings to the deductions of his compatriots with the ferocity of a cornered animal, the certainty of a known foe seemingly more tolerable than the chasm of his unanswerable grief. Whether you’re judging it as a thriller, drama, comedy, or existential inquiry, Riders of Justice is a terrific film, and yet another affirmation of Mads’ exceptional talent.