Conventional Western The Old Way Shoots Straight and Hits the Target
The Old Way is a cold, uncompromising Western that tracks down suspense and tension by moseying down a conventional narrative trail. Director Brett Donowho (Acts of Violence) and screenwriter Carl W. Lucas (The Wave) appear to have watched Unforgiven, True Grit, and as many Budd Boetticher and Monte Hellman oaters as they could, multiple times, pulling themes and ideas from the best in an attempt to make them their own.
That they almost succeed has everything to do with the cast they’ve lassoed to fill the dusty boots of these otherwise familiar characters. Nicolas Cage is convincingly hard and pitiless as the former gunslinger who laid his six-shooter down for love, only to angrily reload when tragedy strikes. Nick Searcy is convincingly withered and weary as the grizzled lawman who tries to keep this ruthless legend from getting his revenge. Noah Le Gros is charmingly merciless as the quick-draw killer who is compelled to awaken a sleeping demon to settle an old score.
Best of all is young upstart Ryan Kiera Armstrong, who broke out last year as the pipsqueak telekinetic pyromaniac Charlie McGee in the otherwise forgettable Firestarter remake. She’s the oddly quiet daughter of Cage’s shootist, and Armstrong frequently steals scene after scene from her far more recognizable costars. Her work during the film’s climax is tremendous, and the psychological permutations her character goes through in the span of a few minutes are an incredible display of emotive dexterity.
Colton Briggs (Cage) is a legendary enforcer who has retired to the life of a simple shopkeeper living with his lovely Ruth (Kerry Knuppe) and inquisitive daughter Brooke (Armstrong) in a nameless small town. After a day working at their family’s store, Colton and Brooke return home to discover US Marshal Jarret (Searcy) and his posse sitting on their doorstep. Outlaw James McCallister (Le Gross) and his small band of cutthroats (Clint Howard, Abraham Benrubi, Shiloh Fernandez) had paid Briggs’ wife a visit, the bloody remnants of which — including a personal message meant for his eyes only — are left splattered about the family’s barn.
It’s no secret where things are headed from there. Against the marshal’s orders, Briggs will “unretire” and slip his gun belt back on, ready to track McCallister all the way to hell to get his revenge. The killer, in turn, has a personal tie to the pursuer he has purposefully antagonized, an opening prologue spelling that out in bullet-riddled Technicolor just on the off chance anyone might miss how the pair are connected.
The tweak is the insertion of Brooke. She’s something of a cross between Mattie Ross from True Grit and what I imagine Ellen Barkin’s incarnation of Calamity Jane in Wild Bill would have been like had we first encountered her as a 12-year-old child. This allows for an unknown commodity to enter into the proceedings, and Donowho and Lucas go to great lengths to make the most of it.
What do I mean? There are long conversations between Briggs and his daughter as they attempt to suss one another out. She wants to know how her father became so good at killing people. He, for his part, begins to see pieces of himself in the child, things that he always paid no attention to before and are suddenly clear as day now — and isn’t sure how he feels about that. Early in their journey tracking McCallister and his crew, the pair have a terrific moonlit conversation about what it means when people cry and what it takes to shed a tear, and this one brief bit has a tremendous impact on everything from that moment forward.
The climax in a Mexican town is well staged, and Cage showcases the action chops that helped make him a genre superstar during the 1990s. But it’s obvious where things are headed, and I kept waiting for the filmmakers to do something unexpected — only to realize that that was never going to happen. Things end exactly where I anticipated, and it’s a testament to how strong Cage, Armstrong, and Le Gross are throughout that this isn’t a bigger issue.
Heck, in some ways this makes The Old Way kind of refreshing. It lives up to its title in that Donowho and Lucas are content to keep themselves from rewriting the Western rulebook. Their film shoots straight and hits the majority of its targets, and thus kicks off 2023 with entertaining old-fashioned bravado.
– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 3 (out of 4)