A film review by Craig J. Koban May 2, 2010


2010, no MPAA rating, 88 mins.


Paul Gross: The Montana Kid  / Sienna Guillory: Jane / Dustin Milligan: Jonathan Kent / Tyler Mane: Jack Smith / Callum Keith Rennie: Ben Cutler


Written and directed by William Phillips

GUNLESS is punctuated by real irony: it’s a Canadian-made and financed Western – a staunchly American genre – that stars one of Canada’s biggest actors as a violent and vengeance salivating Yankee that finds himself trapped north of the border in a pacifistic Canadian town.  So, it’s a Canadian western and arguably the first that I am aware of, but the novelty of that premise is sort of squandered by the film’s attempts to be far too many things during its chronically short 88 minute running time. 

As advertised, it wants to merge the pratfall and sight gag-a-minute comedy with the sun drenched and atmospheric Western, but while trying to find a balance between those two hemispheres GUNLESS seems to spin its tires too much on other tones:  Is the film a perfunctory western or a comedy?  Is it a satire or spoof of the western?  Is it a congenial and sweet romantic comedy?  Is it a cultural farce and send up of Canada/American relations?  GUNLESS is sort of everything described, but in the process if feels more confused about its identity, which is its ultimate failing. 

That’s a small shame, because there is certainly promise and comic potential in the underlining material.  GUNLESS, if given the right script rewrite, could have been an edgy and ruthlessly funny satire, but the resulting film on display here lacks nerve and comic innovation.  That, and it plays things way, way too safely and broadly with its characters and setups.  The Americans, for example, are portrayed as the immoral, bloodthirsty, shoot first, ask questions later cretins and the Canadians are a bunch of Dudley Do-right simpletons.  Oh, the film does have a recurring gag of a small town shop that is run by a pair of constantly bickering French and Anglo merchants, but beyond this GUNLESS is not really as sharp and perceptive with its social commentary and satire as it professes.  It goes out of its way for lowest common denominator chuckles and dramatic payoffs, and this results in a film that feels amateurish.

It’s the 1882 frontier – which looks conspicuously like a 21st Century Alberta, Canada given a retrofit - and in the opening of the film we meet a battle-hardened American gunslinger/killer named The Montana Kid (Paul Gross) that has long been on the run from a group of American bounty hunters led by the ruthless Ben Cutler (a decently vicious, but ultimately underused Callum Keith Rennie).  The Kid does manage to ride across the American/Canadian border – albeit unconsciously on his horse backwards and tied up with a noose around his neck – and stumbles in to the Dominion of Canada small town of Barclay’s Brush, which is populated by the obligatory peaceful and meek townsfolk who look towards such a hard-boiled and bloodthirsty man with a combination of fear, amazement and puzzlement. 

Now, when the Kid arrives in the town and awakens he’s bleeding from a gunshot wound in an area of the anatomy that Clint Eastwood never, ever suffered from and is seeking a way out.  He has a run-in with the local blacksmith, Jack Smith (Tyler Mane, who played the serial killer Michael Myers in Rob Zombie’s last two HALLOWEEN reboots), whom has taken the Kid’s horse in to his shop so he can fix the animals damaged hooves.  However, the Kid decides that the Smith is insulting his honor by "stealing" his horse and calls him out for a duel.  Now, why does he do this?  Because he’s a gunslinger and in the Wild West that just how men like him do things.  The Kid does face one obstacle: Smith has no handgun, nor does anyone else in the town, so in order for this to be a fair and honorable duel, the Kid needs to find the blacksmith a worthy weapon so that the two can settle their score.

The Kid realizes that he may have a bit of a wait on his hands, so he is taken in by the townsfolk and they, in no particular order, provide him with supplies, remove that pesky bullet from his buttocks, and wash his dirt and blood ravaged clothes (some kindly Chinese workers give him ceremonial garb to wear while his cowboy threads are cleaned and sewn back together). The Kid becomes a new celeb in town, but the only one that does not seem to not be instantly enamored with him is the requisite town bombshell, Jane (the naturally beautiful and charming Sienna Guillory).  She does take an interest in the Kid’s attempts to square away his honor, so she makes him a proposition: if he assists her with building a new windmill, then she will provide him with an old, busted up pistol that the Kid can salvage to give the blacksmith so the two can finally have their duel.  Of course, things don’t go as planned when the Kid starts getting all soft on Jane, and the more sentimental and attached he gets, the more the Kid finds his tough guy bravado and reputation as a cold-blooded killer is leaving him.

Nothing in the film comes as an overt surprise: The Kid has the predictable meet-cute with the lovely Jane, they have their initial hostilities, but later warm over to each other, and then, of course, we have a bumbling and hopelessly dweeby RCMP officer (played well by Dustin Milligan, whom you may recall gave the funniest supporting performance in Mike Judge’s EXTRACT as the worst male gigolo ever) that pines for Jane’s affections…and so on and so on.  Then the film trudges to an inevitable conclusion, which involves the Kid and the townsfolk picking up arms to defend themselves versus the American bounty hunters.  There is never a point when GUNLESS veers off of its narrative roadmap as a western/comedy fish-out-of-water narrative.  

The trailers for the film have unfalteringly advertised it as a screwball comedy, and the film does indeed have a few sly gags (like, for example, an opening title card that is an amusing play on words of the title of Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST and a droll scene where the Kid’s doctor informs him that Canada is a place of free health care: "I always pull the first bullet out of a man's butt pro bono”).  Yet, the film's genuine laughs are few and far between and when it does rely on slapstick, the results are more sluggish that uproarious.  Beyond that, the film also is perhaps too solemn at times as well: would-be emotional moments, like when the Kid recounts in dreadful detail the multiple men that he has killed, never come off as persuasive.  Then later on the Kid has a monologue about the real nature of his quest for avenging a wrong that has been perpetrated on his father that seems like it’s from another movie.  More often than not, the disjointed nature of the film’s comical and sober moments seem to battle for screen time.

Perhaps the biggest issue with the film is its star:  Paul Gross is a considerably likeable screen presence; the Edmonton-born and educated actor was an affable and charismatic fixture on TV’s DUE SOUTH for years and later wrote and directed, for my money, the funniest film about curling ever (and arguably the only film about the sport) in MEN WITH BROOMS.  In 2008 he made the noble-minded, but flawed PASSCHENDAELE, a WWI-centric war drama that happened to be the largest budgeted film in Canadian history.  Gross has a strong presence in GUNLESS and he is more than able to harness the film’s questionable fusion of laughs and sentimentality, not to mention that he has a nice, unforced chemistry with Guillory.  Yet, there is rarely a moment when he feels convincing as an American killer and overall figure of hostility and menace.  The issue here is that (a) the audience knows that Gross is Canadian and he comes off mostly as just a Canuck in disguise as an Yankee throughout the film and (b) Gross is such an instantly likeable and congenial actor that it's initially hard to buy into him as a rancorous murderer at the beginning of the film.  Gross is much more finely tailored to play up to the character’s softening up later in the film, but because he lacks credibility as a hostile brute early on it makes the character’s unavoidable transformation ring kind of falsely.

I guess that by the time the bounty hunters – which are unpardonably underdeveloped as antagonists – reveal themselves near the film’s final act to face off against the Kid, I lost interest in GUNLESS.  The film is simply too mechanical and rigidly constructed to appease far too many tones and eventually fails to pay tribute to all of the divergent genres that it wanted to from the onset.  Gross and Guillory try as they may to keep everything afloat here, but writer/director William Phillips never generates enough comic momentum – or novelty for that matter – to make GUNLESS worth investing in.  The film could have come out with guns blazing as a real acerbic and smart spoof on the western genre via a Canadian prerogative, but instead it keeps the riotous chuckles mostly holstered up.

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