Starring: Paul Gross, Sienna Guillory, Tyler Mane, Dustin Milligan, Graham Greene and everybody’s favourite Cylon, Callum Keith Rennie.
Summary Judgement: Take a blender: add two parts CBC-style comedy, one part spaghetti Western, one part History Bites, a dash of Joss Whedon’s Firefly, a sprinkle of Hot Fuzz and you get Gunless.
Gunless begins like so many other spaghetti Westerns. A mysterious stranger with a noose around his neck rides into a peaceful frontier town. He is injured, tired and on the run. He has two concerns: finding some bullets for his revolver and tending to his trusty steed. Unfortunately, The Montana Kid (Paul Gross), he has crossed the border into the small town of Barclay’s Brush in the Dominion of Canada. Within minutes of arriving, The Kid finds himself offended by the local blacksmith, Jack (Tyler Mane). Like any good frontier cliché, The Kid demands satisfaction in the form of a pistol duel. Unfortunately, Jack doesn’t have a gun and The Kid won’t kill a man who brings a hammer to a gunfight.
For a movie that is barely an hour and a half long, Gunless is many things. At times, it seems like the film is a cheeky send up on the Western genre. Dramatic moments build with genuine tension before the mood is shattered with a well-timed piece of physical comedy. There are scenes where Gunless seems like a film intent on subverting the myths of “the real west” as seen on film. Unlike the remake of 3:10 to Yuma, which offered a vision of the west as a place of intense privation and misery, Barcaly’s Brush is a town – in the sense that it has half a dozen permanent structures – where people gather for Wednesday night dinner and the doctor pulls double duty as a tanner and taxidermist. While all this is happening, there are flashes of comedy fit purely for Canadian digestion vis-à-vis a general store with a line of demarcation between its French Canadian and English owners. To the film’s credit, this borderline schizophrenia is delightfully funny.
While I perceive these various quirks and nuances as integral to the film’s comedic effect, I will readily admit that this diversity will not land with all viewers, particularly those who have no taste for history. Without a historical context, some of the writing, which I will praise as pleasantly Whedonesque – so much so that I could have seen Nathan Fillion playing Paul Gross’ role without any difficulty – may come off as silly rather than tongue-in-cheek and askance. Then again, why the hell would you watch a Western if you don’t like history?
Given the recent media hoopla surrounding tax credits for Canadian films, I think film school dropouts…sub–literate daleks reviewers such as Rick Groen at the Globe and Mail are unfairly targeting this film to express their outrage at tax dollars going to something they don’t like. I won’t dignify his review with a link, or extensive deconstruction, except to say that three out of the eight paragraphs in his drunken tirade review are targeting the CBC and film production in Canada. In light of all this negative criticism for Gunless, I would offer this question: What would you like for a film that cost ten million dollars to make? Sure, if Gunless had the budget of Spider-Man 3, I would have expected to walk out the theatre feeling like I had just spent a weekend at an 1890s California bordello. But we are dealing with a low budget Canadian production that had fantastic set construction, excellent camera work and whose only discernible flaw was some dialogue that may have been out of place at the close of the nineteenth century. Oh no, their use of Telefilm dollars didn’t reinvent the Western, surely that means the film is rubbish. Come on Groen and company, how about getting off your soapbox and talking about the movie.
As a comedy, Gunless evoked more laughter than the charity titters I offered Steve Carell and Tina Fey in Date Night. As a Canadian film, Gunless stayed far enough away from the clichés of Canadiana to keep me happy. A scene with a squad of North West Mounted Police kicking the crap out of The Kid counters any Dudley Doright airs that the film may project. As a Western, Gunless shows a side of frontier history that many people ignored on their mandatory school trips to living history sites but pairs that with the clichés of the West for comedic pay dirt.
Kudos to Mr. Phillips for his fine contribution to Westerns and Canadian film.
Overall Score: 80%