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A Million Ways to Die in the West

 

Central to Post-American Hollywood’s hate affair with European-American heritage is its especial loathing for the rugged, expansive tradition of the masculine Old West, a tired spite that found expression in Brokeback Mountain (2005), Django Unchained (2012), and last year’s flop Lone Ranger remake, and now throws a new shovelful of Marxist manure onto the pile with A Million Ways to Die in the West, the latest directorial effort of Family Guy auteur Seth MacFarlane, whose last foray into feature filmmaking was the less heartless and more palatable Ted (2012).

The western spoof was never a genre that held much interest for this reviewer. After Wild Gals of the Naked West (1962), Little Big Man (1970), Thank You Mask Man (1971), Blazing Saddles (1974), and so many others, was there really such high demand for another one of these things? Worst is that A Million Ways to Die in the West misses even the broad target of this underachieving subgenre and fails to elicit a single laugh – with, perhaps, the brief exception of the absurd sight of Gilbert Gottfried dressed up to look like Abraham Lincoln.

MacFarlane, who stars as an Arizona sheep farmer, lacks the charisma and color to carry a gonzo film of this sort, and might have done better to cast Seth Rogen or some other funny Jew in the lead. Monument Valley, at least, was never more gorgeous, and sets off race traitoress Charlize Theron’s earthy beauty to nice effect. Liam Neeson, too, is adequate as the principal villain, while Sarah Silverman is convincing as (what a stretch!) a brainless whore. No coup of casting, however, could offset the fact that A Million Ways to Die in the West is too explicitly nasty, self-aware, and mean-spirited to evoke any genuine mirth.

2 out of 5 stars. ICA’s advice: watch Shane (1953) again instead. That is, unless the viewer is absolutely determined to see a sheep urinating in Seth MacFarlane’s face or Doogie Howser, M.D., dumping noisy splats of diarrhea into a Stetson.

Ideological Content Analysis indicates that A Million Ways to Die in the West is:

13. Pro-miscegenation. Giovanni Ribisi dirties himself with Jewish floozy Sarah Silverman.

12. Anti-capitalistic. Merchants receive unfavorable depictions in an arrogant mustache cosmetics salesman (Doogie Howser) and a quack medicine hawker (Dennis Haskins). Other representative forms of commerce and industry are prostitution and mining, which leads to health problems.

11. Anti-tobacco. MacFarlane has a coughing fit when he tries his first cigarette.

10. Anti-Arab. Theron, after hearing him do a mock rendition of an Islamic prayer, is relieved to learn that MacFarlane has no Arabian ancestry.

9. Anti-slavery (i.e., pro-yawn). Django himself, Jamie Foxx, shows up in a cameo to murder the proprietor of a “runaway slave” shooting game at a fair.

8. Anti-human. Among the sights MacFarlane expects the viewer to find hilarious are a family catching on fire and men being shot, gored by a bull, and smashed into bloody bits by a falling block of ice.

7. Pro-slut. Sarah Silverman with a gob of semen stuck to her cheek. How charming.

6. Anti-Christian. Parkinson’s disease is sarcastically described as one of the ways God shows His love. A pastor and his son are murderers. Silverman plays a prostitute who bangs ten customers “on a slow day” but refuses to compromise her Christian beliefs by having premarital sex with her fiance.

5. Pro-castration. MacFarlane’s girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) dumps him, mainly because the guy is such a wimpy, needy schmuck with no potential. The movie’s somewhat ambivalent solution to his woes, however, is not for the hero to turn himself into a stud and a macho gunslinger, but for him to become more open-minded, study under the tutelage of a feminist, take drugs, and embrace diversity. Sissy, progressive, ethnomasochistic men like MacFarlane and Ribisi are the characters the viewer is supposed to like, while traditionally masculine types are antagonists, with rough-loving outlaw Liam Neeson getting a daisy stuffed in his ass. Men, the message seems to be, ought not to toughen up so much as opt for moderation in wimpiness.

4. Gun-ambivalent. A Million Ways to Die in the West is naturally eager to depict the typical gun owner as a rowdy Caucasian who likes nothing better than to find an excuse to put a bullet through a stranger. The film finds itself in a bit of a quandary, however, in that it is difficult to tell an entertaining story about the Wild West without making use of heroic gunplay. As a compromise, the film features an unlikely, reluctant hero in MacFarlane, a man with no natural talent for shooting and who avoids confrontation when possible, but does learn (from a woman) how to handle a gun in order to protect himself from all of the horrible, unprogressive white men in town. A Million Ways to Die in the West appears to suggest that firearms are best left as a monopoly of responsible feminists like Charlize Theron.

3. Pro-drug. MacFarlane and Theron share a marijuana cookie. The hero later attains “true courage” by drinking a psychedelic concoction given to him by an Indian tribe. Group freakout sessions, explains their wise chief (Wes Studi), constitute the way to “true happiness”.

2. Feminist, anti-marriage, and anti-family. Theron heroically liberates herself from bossy, abusive husband Liam Neeson. MacFarlane’s parents are lifeless sourpusses who never show him any affection. Ribisi, meanwhile, mentions being molested by an uncle. (cf. nos. 5 and 8)

1. Anti-American. “The West fuckin’ sucks.”

Boss Nigger

Boss Nigger aka Boss (1975) ****  Or “Mr. Nigger to you,” as Black Man with No Name Fred “The Hammer” Williamson tells outlaw William Smith.  Terrible Tom’s earnest delivery of the rousing theme song (familiar to any devotee of Synapse’s 42nd Street Forever series) would alone be worth the price of admission, but Boss Nigger offers other pleasant diversions for fans of westerns and blaxploitation, of which this film is a capable hybrid.  Williamson and the comical D’Urville Martin, his sidekick from previous outings, are bounty hunters who set up shop as sheriff and deputy in a lawless western town and proceed to implement “Black Law”, under which such infractions as saying “nigger” in public incur a fine of $20.  Williamson is a large, commanding presence onscreen, but William Smith is more than equal to the task of providing him with a sufficiently scary opponent and can be believed when he threatens the hero, “Your death is gonna be slow and painful, nigger.”  R.G. Armstrong, reliable as the face of country corruption and pusillanimity in the 70s, lends Boss Nigger an added credibility as the town’s crooked mayor, who until now has let Smith and his gang run roughshod over the citizenry.  Mostly lighthearted, harmless fun, Boss Nigger sobers as vengeance is necessitated and ends on a somewhat bitter note.  An indispensable artifact of 70s exploitation cinema, the film was directed by genre veteran Jack Arnold, who had previously collaborated with Williamson on Black Eye but is more famously associated with such 1950s science fiction films as Tarantula, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and The Incredible Shrinking Man.  4 out of 5 stars.

Adios Amigo

Adios Amigo (1975) ***1/2  Williamson is back in action in this sequel, which finds trailwise hustler Richard Pryor (who appears to be drunk or high much of the time) replacing D’Urville Martin as the comic relief companion.  The Hammer not only writes, but takes over in the director’s chair for Adios Amigo, a looser, lesser effort than its predecessor.  Episodic, anarchic, and hardly structured, Adios Amigo lacks both a principal antagonist and the expected narrative thread to pull the viewer neatly along, feeling consequently more like a succession of half-baked sketches than a finished cinematic product.  What plot there is amounts to Williamson’s repeated frustration with all the trouble that comes his way whenever ridiculous con man Pryor crosses his path.  Less serious and less preoccupied with race than Boss Nigger, Adios Amigo is an easygoing, casual, friendly film whose principal draw is the sense of wacky, uninhibited fun it generates.  Pryor in particular is fun to watch, with his best line being, “What’s it look like I’m doin’ here?  I’m stealin’ rocks.”  His funniest scene, however, is probably his card game with Blacula‘s Thalmus Rasulala, here bearded as an eccentric desert peddler with two horny daughters.  Adios Amigo‘s music may lack the funk power of Boss Nigger‘s, but Blue Infernal Machine’s theme song is an appropriately fun encapsulation of the movie’s attitude.  3.5 of 5 stars.

Joshua

Joshua (1976) ****1/2  One of the best films in which Fred Williamson has appeared, Joshua was directed by Larry Spangler, whose previous teamings with the star were The Legend of Nigger Charley and The Soul of Nigger Charley.  Dispensing with the comedy of Boss Nigger and Adios Amigo, thisis a straightforward revenge western with Civil War veteran Williamson tracking the outlaws who murdered his mother.  With fine cinematography making impressive use of majestic Monument Valley locations, and a distinctive, sometimes hypnotic score (credited to unknown Mike Irwin) that mixes acoustic and synthesized elements, unusual for a western, Joshua more than distinguishes itself within the genre.  The snowy expanses that eventually fill the screen recall another offbeat western, The Great Silence; and Williamson, who rides alone for most of his vengeance trail, establishes himself for all time as the black counterpart to Clint Eastwood, channeling something of the ghostly, single-minded revengefulness of High Plains Drifter or The Outlaw Josey Wales.  Apart from the hero’s committed performance, Brenda Venus and Isela Vega are noteworthy as eye candy, and Ralph Willingham, in his only known screen credit, creates one of westerndom’s great raspy old rascal characters in cowardly, constantly giggling second fiddle bad guy Weasle.  Recommended.  4.5 stars.

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