A History of the Comedy Western #5: 1990-present

This is part five of a five part series. For part one, covering the years of silent comedy, go here.  For part two, on the 30s and 1940s, go here. For part three, covering the 1950s and 1960s, go here. For part four, 1970s-1980s, go here.

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Back to the Future III (1991)

We hereby give honorable mention to this film, the third part in Robert Zemeckis’s very clever time travel trilogy starring Michael  J. Fox and Christoper Lloyd. It perhaps intentionally gets all sorts of historical details wrong. The West in this supposed past is the West of Hollywood movies…which appears to be part of the trilogy’s theme, for the series also views the 1950s, “the sci-fi future” and ultimately even the 1980s through the same affectionate lens. Marty gives his name as  “Clint Eastwood” when he’s in the past, and a plot  twist (stopping a bullet with a piece of sheet metal under the shirt) is taken from A Fistful of Dollars. Harry Carey Jr and other familiar western character actors are in the picture. And somehow Monument Valley is suddenly nearby Marty’s town — who knew?

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City Slickers (1991) and City Slickers II (1994)

Again an honorable mention. City Slickers takes place on a dude ranch in contemporary times, but because of that “pretend” setting, it allows a real western scenario to happen. Jack Palance as Curly conjures all his past western movie roles, the most famous perhaps being the villain in Shane. As part of a dude ranch experience he takes three middle aged suburban baby boomer girly men (Billy Crystal, Bruno Kirby,  and Daniel Stern) on a cattle drive. But his cowhands (ex cons) have other plans. A nice and frequently funny tribute to the western genre and relevant meditation on manhood in the modern age. The sequel, featuring Palance in dual roles (he has an evil twin) adheres to the Law of Diminishing Returns.

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Lucky Luke (1991-1992)

Silly movie and tv series based on a Belgian comic created by “Morris”. An Italian/ U.S. co-production, it starred Terence Hill as the white hatted hero of Daisy Town, with a theme song by Roger Miller. I only saw one episode, entitled “Ghost Train”,  featuring guest stars Jack Elam and Abe Vigoda. I found it pleasant and inoffensive enough.

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The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. (1993-1994)

I was quite fond of this tv series when it aired originally and watched it every week for a spell. It starred Bruce Campbell from the Evil Dead movies as a very tongue-in cheek western bounty hunter out to track down an evil gang, with John Astin as a Professor who helps him with futuristic steampunk devices. It ws of course, too smart for tv at the time and lasted only one season.

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Wagons East (1994)

A fairly dumb comedy, directed in a hackish manner, but saved by a few decent gags and several game performances. The premise is that several misfits (mostly played by recognizable character actors and led by the always hilarious Richard Lewis) decide they can’t cut it in the west and so they hire inept wagonmaster John Candy (in his last role) to take them back east. Since there always needs to be a bad guy, the one in this picture is a capitalist who wants to stop their journey because he is trying to encourage a land rush west, so no one can go east— kind of lame and implausible. The cast also includes John C. McGinley, Ed Lauter, Charles Rocket and Native American actor and activist Russel Means. The movie was a sad swan song for Candy, and he’s not at his best here.

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Maverick (1994)

One of those cynical attempts to adapt a tv series into cinematic payday. Like most such attempts, this is a worthless film in nearly every measurable way.  And worse, a movie by and for people who don’t know or care about, westerns. Which is fine, I suppose. It doesn’t REALLY pretend to be a western. What it pretends to be is a “western”, and it takes for granted all sorts of erroneous and disrespectful things about the genre, such as that it is necessarily full of clichés, that it has no three dimensional characters, etc etc. And the movie also, assumes that westerns have no plot, I guess? An hour and a half of this movie is spent on Mel Gibson’s Brett Maverick trying to get to a poker game — the sort of poker game that never would have existed a century ago, one in which the players all put in $25,000 and the winnings are half a million dollars. At the game, there is a little brouhaha about winning the pot, and a swindle, and a brief altercation. That’s it. Just a chain of card games, fights, comic set pieces, character exchanges, but no plot. It’s almost as self-indulgently bad as Hudson Hawk.

And this skimpy story is filled with characters you give don’t care about. Gibson is at his most irritating when he thinks he’s funny and cute. It’s a potentially good concept: a likable gambler and con man who has a million angles, and is prepared for any eventuality ahead of time. But it’s done cheesily here. Jodie Foster wastes her prodigious talent as an actress as a thief and gambler with a phony southern accent, and Gibson’s love interest. Her salary must have been large. James Garner (who played Maverick on the tv show) is a crook who disguises himself as a cop, and James Coburn the riverboat captain who organizes the poker game. But who cares? Then there are a bunch of real sad cameos by third rate actors from the fringes of late westerns: Denver Pyle, Doug McClure, and so forth. Worse, they stick some terrible contemporary country music in, the kind of thing that carries NO echoes of the period depicted in the movie, that is, assuming the film is supposed to convey any particular time period. It’s the kind of movie where the canyon the hero almost falls into has to be the Grand Canyon, and where the heroes sing “Amazing Grace” when they bury somebody, clearly because that’s the only hymn the creators know. In short, the film is an affront to every breathing soul, past, present and future.

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The Cherokee Kid (1996)

Likable African American comedian Sinbad stars in this comedy western co-written and co-produced by SNL alum Tim Kazurinsky (who has a cameo in the film as a flim-flam man). The story is actually too serious to bear a comedy, and the occasional comedy bits prevent us from taking the story seriously. When he is a child, young Isaiah Turner (Sinbad—Ike Turner, get it?) witnesses the death of his parents at the hands of railroad agents who want their Oklahoma land (although due to the color difference the incident comes uncomfortably close to playing like a lynching). The railroad gang is led by James Coburn — upon whom Turner vows vengeance when he grows up. The adult turner leaves the home of the preacher who raised him (Ernie Hudson) as a naïf with no survival skills. He falls off his horse, etc.

Unfortunately, Sinbad is a bit of a non-actor. Not only can he not handle the dramatic scenes but he is surprisingly inept at the comic ones. (but he’s still likable). He hooks up with a mountain man (Burt Reynolds) who teaches him survival skills, and then a band of robbers, who teach him to shoot, ride, etc. In the end he is shot by bounty hunter Gregory Hines, nicknamed the “Undertaker”, and actually his own brother, separated in childhood and now a gunslinger. Sinbad fakes his death, and then springs out of his coffin. Then all the good guys kill the bad guys.

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Almost Heroes (1998)

Extremely funny comedy western directed by Christopher Guest, starring Chris Farley and Mathew Perry as would-be competitors to Lewis and Clark. The film reminds me of an American version of Monty Python films like Holy Grail, Jabberwocky and The Life of Brian. The grit of historical verisimilitude is married to outrageous, frequently scatological comedy. Farley is particularly hilarious as the earthy scout, and I even enjoyed Perry in his role as the effete gentleman. Eugene Levy is a French tracker who claims to speak a hundred languages (but actually speaks nothing other than French and English). The plot is picaresque…they merely go from adventure to adventure, although at a certain point they run afoul of  a vain conquistador (played with uncharacteristic broadness by Kevin Dunn), adding some tension to their race to the west coast. I really love this movie—it is clearly too smart to be better known.

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The Wild Wild West (1999)

God awful. What confluence of foul stars summoned this atrocity into existence has to be wondered at. Will Smith as the Robert Conrad character from the tv show, implausibly, anachronistically black for no apparent reason. Will Smith is a terrific actor, and more importantly a terrific star. Didn’t he have anything better, anything more important to do than this?  Kenneth Branagh as an insane, legless Confederate villain — he’s extremely good, but wasted in this movie. The film-makers toy with racial commentary, but only skirt it, and not in any constructive or instructive way. There is one scene, where Smith and the legless racist trade insults, that is nothing short of appalling.  The film even makes light of lynching. Kevin Kline is well cast in the Ross Martin role of Artmeus Gordon. The art direction, however, is fantastic though. And some sort of impossible very steampunk doomsday weapon figures into the plot. It’s directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, of the Addams Family and Men in Black film franchises.

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Shanghai Noon (2000)

Quite a funny slapstick buddy picture starring Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson. Chan plays a palace guard who traces a kidnapped Chinese princess to the U.S. and has to rescue her. Wilson, largely ad libbing, does his usual schtick as a lazy, pleasure-loving, easy-going bank robber. They team up out of necessity after Wilson has alienated his gang. Chan’s character is kind of a ne’er-do-well. Apparently the original concept for the film was his. There are some mild stabs at political consciousness (coolies working on a railroad) but they’re not taken very far.

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Django Unchained (2012)

I think Quentin Tarantino is a genius and there’s no real name for what he does. This film is more than just a comedy western. Its aesthetic impact (on me, at least) is too profound for that, but it’s too funny not to include here. As escaped slave Djano Jamie Foxxx, who is capable of great comic flights, plays it mostly straight. The great ongoing comic business belongs to Christoph Waltz, a wheeling, dealing kibbitzer with a deadly side, and a never-ending parade of familiar character actors (including a priceless Jonah Hill as a racist vigilante). A tribute not only to spaghetti westerns (although its relationship to the 1966 Django is tangential at best, sharing only the theme song and the actor Franco Nero) but to blaxploitation westerns like Mandingo. I could rant at length, but that’s for some other post.

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The Lone Ranger (2012)

I wrote on this movie at length here. I include it among comedy westerns because everything is so tongue-in-cheek and ironic nowadays that it’s impossible to know what’s intentionally comedy and what’s not. Johnny Depp as Tonto? That had better be intended ironically. If you don’t want to follow the link, here’s an excerpt:

“…And the cynicism and the nastiness! The story is ostensibly being told to a seven year old boy, presumably a stand-in for the film’s target audience. And the story we tell the boy is filled to the brim with graphic violence and occasional profanity. One man is gutted like a fish and chokes in his own blood. In reaction, another man vomits. A trans desperado expresses the slight hope that he’ll be raped by the lawmen. A train wreck comes to a skidding halt and one of its pistons comes lose and flies javelin-like through the air, landing between our heroes in the spitting image of an erect penis. For no reason at all (except I guess to amuse any mongolian idiots in the audience) a pile of manure plops out of a horse’s ass — in close-up.  And a bunch of cute, sweet little bunnies turns out to be a pack of savage, meat-eating, fanged jackalopes. I assure you that Walt Disney is spinning in his grave.”

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A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)

A million thing I’d rather be doing than watch this movie. (I started to, but only got five minutes in. I got as far as the shadow puppet hand job and then I calmly took the DVD out of the player, put in the Netflix envelope, and carried it to the mailbox using hazmat tongs).

For more on comedy film history please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

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