Even without saddling your western with the most convenient avenue for criticism built right into the title alone, you're taking a hell of a chance whenever you step back in time through the swinging doors of a saloon and old dusty streets of the quintessential John Wayne genre.
Whether you give your cowboys black hats or white hats, have them squabble over land, add in a saintly or corrupt sheriff, or divide the community with a rough gang that's ridden into town to disturb the peace like wild horses that need to be tamed before the cattle drive, chances are we've seen it before.
Yet, in the right hands, westerns still work in the twenty-first century as you can witness in the superior remake of the '50s western 3:10 to Yuma, Ed Harris' underrated Appaloosa, the overly long but gorgeously photographed ensemble piece The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford or in the uncompromisingly brutal western, The Proposition.
And even if you're considering the mild success of pictures like Lionsgate's recent Angel and the Badman that derived its plot from the original film starring John Wayne's the Duke or viewing simplistic but entertaining television fare like Prairie Fever, you quickly realize that without complete conviction in the performances, the writing, and the direction, your cowboys will be left in the dust quicker than guns fired off at High Noon or at Tombstone and Wyatt Earp's O.K. Coral.
And that's exactly what happened with this extremely weak offering that opens with so many western movie cliches including lines like “if you wanted to dance, all you had to do was ask” and back-and-forth about bringing knives to gun fights that for a moment, I wondered if we were watching a satire. But Blazing Saddles, it most definitely was not as the wooden dialogue often looked as though it had been read by the actors off handmade signs by a crew member or in some cases, just inserted unnaturally at voice-over levels in an over-dub after the shoot ended.
While I kept hoping that the film's saving grace would be in seeing the late, great David Carradine's Marshall stop the bank-robbing Wade Gang complete with some exciting action sequences, basically even Carradine looks as though he's about ready to head back to his trailer and nap in his rare, brief scenes.
And although it's dedicated to Carradine's memory and his photo is front and center in the advertising, the film does attempt to serve up a great western anti-hero with the character of Will Drayton. A former Civil War trained deadly gunslinger turned failed rancher, Drayton finds himself caught between the officers and crooks he left behind when he's hired as a sharpshooter to pay off his land debt by gunning down the outlaws he used to ride alongside.
Unfortunately, it turns out, those of us who'd begun the film with the expectation of the title in mine that “hell” was going to break loose in the form of western excitement, soon realize that we were dead wrong as well. While redemption is a favorite theme for the genre favorite, in this recent outing from North American Pictures, we're dismayed to realize that the filmmakers were using the “hell” from the title in the literal, biblical sense.
By layering the weak cliché riddled script with the crowd-yawner of Revelations quotes and plot points that drive home the hellfire and brimstone of “that old time religion,” All Hell drops down a notch from “B” movie to “C” movie.
To its credit, however, it does pick up slightly as it meanders towards the conclusion. Yet in addition to the teleprompter style delivery, the final nails in the movie's coffin were embodied by the anti-climactic and anti-cinematic exposition heavy monologues of “tell don't show,” along with the overall impression that the movie was made by a bunch of guys who first met on Sunday (obviously), started shooting within the hour and finished the picture by Wednesday.
While obviously I know that that wasn't the case, nothing about this film feels fresh and even more intriguingly, you get the sense that those involved realized this from the start and just kept talking until someone yelled "cut." Lifeless, forgettable, and landing a little south of the mark of mediocrity, I guess we can forget about the criticism risk of the title since nothing really Broke Loose after All and Hell, nobody cared.
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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.