Outlaw Posse

Outlaw Posse
Outlaw Posse
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While watching “Outlaw Posse,” you can’t help but feel that Mario Van Peebles was given a task to make a list of his favorite Westerns and then adapted that list into a script. There is a homage (or outright theft) of many favorites from the genre like “The Wild Bunch,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Blazing Saddles,” “Django Unchained” and, naturally, all those blaxploitation oaters Fred Williamson made in the Seventies with titles you’ll have to look up yourself. Van Peebles knows what makes for a good Western, yet hasn’t quite delivered one himself as his movie results in being sometimes fascinating but too often clunky effort which won’t find its way onto anyone’s list of classic westerns any time soon.

Having said that, opening scene is an instant classic, one which could’ve worked as its own short film and promises which rest of feature can’t quite deliver on. A group of grizzled guys (Neal McDonough, Cam Gigandet, M. Emmet Walsh) show up at dusty New Mexico town circa 1908 where they proceed into local saloon for drink. While there one starts hassling & threatening Indian customer until Chief (Van Peebles) emerges out of corner and proceeds to verbally decimate loudmouth before doing so with guns. It’s hugely entertaining sequence that visually pays tribute to genre greats while expressing ideas seldom seen or heard in such movies.

We quickly learn that he along with Angel (William Mapother) were entrusted with guarding shipment southern gold sent out west ostensibly as reparations for ex-slaves in immediate aftermath Civil War; inevitably these two had falling-out resulting Chief taking gold–alongside Angel’s hand–and burying it on tribal land most whites feared enter, making deal with tribal leader about coming back safe someday take it out again. Now time has come thus Chief recruits small gang including aging Carson (John Carroll Lynch), young callow Southpaw (Jake Manley), sultry knife-wielding mystic Queenie (Amber Reign Smith) and minstrel performer Spooky (DC Young Fly) who defends his work by noting “Make people laugh you can say anything.”

Naturally Chief isn’t only one after that gold so Angel plus gang shows up at doorstep Decker (Mandela Van Peebles) – who also happens be Chief’s estranged son; although not seen or heard from father in years demands he catch up with him & join his crew thereby letting them catch up with them both take gold as well as chiefs hand. When refuses, burns down house kidnaps beloved wife Malindy (Madison Calley) to ensure compliance while chasing after this treasure along way encountering number colorful characters during which he tentatively begins patching things up where necessary with Decker before inevitable – Spoiler Alert – discovery of loot and shootout.

Outlaw Gang is not Van Peebles’ first run at the genre, having acted in and directed 1993’s Posse—no relation to this film, whose title is essentially meaningless. That movie was basically a history lesson that found Van Peebles bent on reminding us there were Black cowboys back in the day—a laudable notion except that he was so busy reminding us of this he never got around to giving us an interesting story. This time around the lessons are more subtly delivered, but he still hasn’t quite landed on a narrative that’s particularly compelling. Most of it is overly familiar; so much so that even the most potentially progressive conceit here — that those disenfranchised by race, creed, gender or economic status need to stop fighting among themselves and unite against their common enemy — is the same one that made Blazing Saddles more than just a series of jokes. Perhaps to cover for the absence of a strong narrative, Van Peebles has his characters mouth contemporary viewpoints in ways that one assumes are meant to supplant old genre tropes but which are only sporadically interesting or edifying. More problematically, he also keeps up a frenetic visual style throughout, working with a restlessly roving camera and quick edits that serve mainly to distract.

And yet for all its failure to ever really get itself together as anything approaching a satisfying whole, this film is never boring; I had fun with enough individual parts of it along the way where I’m going to give it a pass overall. I’ve already mentioned my love for what happens in those opening moments and there are two others almost as good: one where Chief’s gang robs a local bank using an approach I won’t spoil for you and another when they stumble upon a multicultural community run by one of Chief’s old associates (Cedric the Entertainer) that feels like Bartertown from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, but more rural. There are a couple of distracting cameos from the likes of Whoopi Goldberg and Edward James Olmos here, but most of the main players do right by themselves — I’m particularly fond of Lynch as Carson, who’s wise but weary, and Smith as Queenie, who’s a wild card. I enjoy Van Peebles’ work in front of the camera too — he cuts a dashing figure that clearly recalls Fred Williamson, and he looks like he belongs in a milieu not many contemporary actors can convincingly recreate these days.

The Outlaw Posse may not have been as good as it could have been, but there were still some pretty memorable moments scattered throughout. This film never quite reaches the levels set by those that came before it or even some recent examples like Dead For A Dollar – which is often stunning and sadly overlooked in my opinion. However, I’m also aware that there aren’t all too many westerns being shown at your local Cineplex right now so if you’re really into this stuff and can’t wait until Kevin Costner’s Horizon Trilogy hits theaters later next month then give ‘er a whirl. Just don’t expect much!

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