(Reviews of The Old Way; Nocebo; and The Enforcer)
THE OLD WAY.
Brett Donowho's The Old Way is being billed as Nicolas Cage's `first traditional Western'. As fans of the Oscar-winning maverick will know, however, he has appeared in such neo-Westerns as Sion Sono's Prisoners of the Ghostland (2021) and Glabe Polsky's Butcher's Crossing (2022), while there was also a backwoods element to Michael Samoski's excellent Pig (2021).
Screenwriter Carl W. Lucas seems intent on making up for lost time by stuffing his scenario with frontier clichés and references to vastly superior pictures. But, while this latest bid to breath some life into a genre that has been slowly expiring for some six decades is nothing more than passable, its heart is just about in the right place.
Twenty years ago, Colton Briggs (Nicolas Cage) was a ruthless gun for hire, who killed a man in front of his young son after a failed rescue bid from a small-town hanging. He now runs the general store and dotes on his wife, Ruth (Kerry Knupe), and their young daughter, Brooke (Ryan Kiera Armstrong).
When Ruth is murdered, Briggs ignores the advice of Marshall Jarret (Nick Searcy) to protect Brooke and let him capture the culprits. Having decided against shooting the girl, Briggs saddles up Ruth's horse and, having torched their homestead, sets off with Brooke to find the killer.
He is James McCallister (Noah Le Gros), who is out to avenge his father after two decades of simmering. Now an outlaw, he rides with sidekicks, Boots Miller (Shiloh Fernandez), Big Mike Arlens (Abraham Benrubi), and Eustice Bedford (Clint Howard), who helped him capture and torture Ruth. They also ambush Jarret and his posse, leaving just two alive. Briggs finds them and coerces Jarret into telling him the names of the men he's pursuing.
With Brooke learning fast about living rough and channelling her fearlessness, Briggs defies Jarret's warning about breaking the laws about vigilante justice that have been introduced by the newly founded state. But Briggs listens to no one and treks on to Santa Rosa, unaware that this is all part of McCallister's plan, as he only killed Ruth to lure Briggs into a trap and ensure that he suffers in the same way that he has done since losing his father.
While they hunker down with a trunk full of Mexican cash to live like kings across the border, Briggs and Brooke have a fireside chat about emotions and dealing with feeling dead inside. She asks him to teach her to shoot and he realises she's her father's daughter.
Aware that McCallister is trying to entice him, Briggs sends Brooke to recce the town. However, she's abducted by McCallister, who explains that they're like siblings because Briggs is his spiritual father because his new self was born the day his pa died. She taunts him that he's crazy and that Briggs will cure him, but he's merely amused by her bravura.
Sneaking into town, Briggs kills Big Mike with a knife and Boots with a bullet. But Eustice wings him and he can only use one arm when McCallister calls him out for a showdown. He offers a deal that Brooke will live if he sacrifices himself and Briggs takes the slug after offing Eustice. But McCallister is too busy celebrating to notice that Brooke has pulled her father's pistol.
Jarret finds Brooke lying beside Briggs' body in the dust. They cut a deal that he is considered a hero who avenged his wife, while Brooke promises not to reveal that Jarret was outsmarted by a 12 year-old girl. As he rides away, however, Brookes asks a saloon girl to bring her saddle bag and she heads home with McCallister's loot.
He may produce performances of varying quality, but Nicolas Cage has a compelling screen presence that keeps viewers hooked. His dialogue in this satisfying pastiche may be hokey, but he delivers it with conviction and coaxes the excellent Ryan Kiera Armstrong into doing the same. Consequently, they prove every bit as convincing as Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel in Paul Greengrass's News of the World (2020).
There are also elements of George Stevens's Shane (1953) and Henry Hathaway's True Grit (1969) about the way in which the theme of youth and experience is discussed in a script that sorely needs greater psychological complexity and character depth. But it's amusing to note the similarities between Brooke and Roberta in Nocebo (which is also reviewed this week). Clearly something in the air about deadpan tweenagers with a splinter of ice in their hearts.
Flashing father James's sneering grin, Noah Le Gros displays the Western nous he has picked up on the Yellowstone spin-off series, 1883 (2022). He's ably supported in carrying out his improbably convoluted plan by Shiloh Fernandez, Abraham Benrubi, and Clint Howard, who provides some Gabby Hayes-like comic relief by being repeatedly subjected to knockabout violence. But Sion Michel's watchful location photography and Andrew Morgan Smith's old school score can also be admired, along with Donowho's respectful, if hardly revisionist direction. It would be interesting to see how he fared with Bruce Willis on Acts of Violence (2018), as the actor-director is more renowned as a horror specialist after No Tell Motel (2012), 5 Souls, and A Haunting At Silver Falls (both 2013).
Following their collaborations on Without Name (2016) and Vivarium (2019), Irish director Lorcan Finnegan and scenarist Garret Shanley reunite on Nocebo, a domestic service chiller that has the distinction of being the first Irish-Filipino co-production. Complete with flashbacks written in conjunction with Cebu film-maker Aa Cawdhury, this is an unsettling, if occasionally histrionic treatise on developed world exploitation that is bound for the Shudder streaming site after a brief stay in cinemas.
Eight months after receiving bad news and encountering a mangy (and possibly imagined) dog during a runway show, children's fashion designer Christine (Eva Green) is plagued by physical pains, anxiety attacks, and memory lapses. This explains why she so readily welcomes Philippine housekeeper Diana (Chai Fonacier) to help her look after globe-trotting marketing strategist husband, Felix (Mark Strong), and headstrong eight year-old daughter, Roberta (Billie Gadson), even though she has no recollection of hiring her.
As Christine is stressing over a collection for the demanding Liz (Cathy Belton), Felix agrees to overlook the fact that he knew nothing about a home help. But he only gives Diana a week's trial, which means she has to work fast to win him over with home cooking (that is laced with ingredients she plucks from her bulging suitcase). However, while she cures Christine with tickle therapy, she oversteps the mark by bringing her breakfast in bed and inquiring about the `little helpers' who make her clothes.
Roberta is also unnerved by child-sized footprints in a tray of soot outside Diana's bedroom door. But she's just as puzzled by Christine forgetting the way to school and needing some more of the folk therapies that Diana insists she mastered after being possessed by a dying witch's soul. Felix is also concerned by how dependent his wife is becoming on the rituals Diana performs. But, even they seem to bring relief, as Christine is weaned off her medication, Felix orders Diana to say out of her head.
She refuses and enlists Roberta's support after Felix accidentally kills her canary. However, she's fired after Felix finds Christine's pills under Diana's bed and leaves having unleashed the dog tick that had initiated Christine's malady. This haunts her dreams and helps drive a wedge with Felix after Roberta accuses him (at Diana's behest) of stealing her medicine.
After Felix is hospitalised after a fall downstairs, Christine has hallucinations at the shooting of a commercial (caused by Diana playing a child's xylophone in a frenzy of vengeful fury). All the while, we see flashbacks to Diana's life with her husband and daughter in the Philippines and it comes as no surprise when she returns to the sprawling house when Christine is at her most vulnerable.
Diana sets Christine to work at a sewing machine, as she makes her recollect a visit to the sweatshop where she worked that resulted in the doors being padlocked to prevent theft. On the day she brought her daughter to work and slipped out to buy drinks, a fire ravaged the building and there were no survivors. As Christine works with flames licking around her, Diana throw herself off the roof so her soul (in the form of a fragile bird) can pass into Roberta.
Buried in the closing crawl is a reference to a 2015 fire at the Metro Manila rubber-shoe factory that claimed 74 lives. It's a sobering link with reality that just about anchors a film that had threatened to career off the rails in the final reel. Editor Tony Cranstoun comes into his own in flash-cutting images capturing Christine's ordeal against the cacophony of Kristian Eidnes Andersen and Jacques Pedersen's sound design and Antonio C. Buencamino's score. But the effect is more overwhelming than terrifying, as though Finnegan and Shanley had run out of ways to torment Christine and had decided to go for broke in finishing her off.
This is a shame, as, while some of the plotting is slapdash, Christine's flip from sorcery victim to capitalist oppressor is neatly done. Furthermore, Eva Green and singer Chai Fonacier had excelled as the women from different worlds bound by motherhood and an unshared secret, while Radek Ladczuk's photography had been as discomfitingly claustrophobic as it had been in Jennifer Kent's The Babadook (2014) and The Nightingale (2018). But this is much more slickly generic and less plausibly unnerving than Vivarium, consequently, it's difficult to side with the sketchy characters, no matter how justified their seething grievance or how resistible their smug sense of callous entitlement.
In his heyday, screenwriter W. Peter Iliff was responsible for such solid outings as Rick King's Prayer of the Rollerboys (1990), Philip Noyce's Patriot Games (1992), Brian Robbins's Varsity Blues (1999), and Stephen Hopkins's Under Suspicion (2000). More significantly, he gave Kathryn Bigelow's career a major boost with Point Break (1991). But, while he has remained busy since, Iliff has rather marked time.
With The Enforcer, he's provided first-time director Richard Hughes with a serviceable, if predictable scenario. But one can't help wondering throughout whatever happened to Iliff's proposed 2017 collaboration with Wesley Snipes that was intriguingly to have been called 59 Rows of Teeth.
Hired by Miami crime boss Estelle (Kate Bosworth), street fighter Stray (Mojean Aria)is paired with Cuda (Antonio Banderas), a fixer who has just emerged from a stretch in the pen. On their first night, they bump off a debtor and go to a floodlit driving range to secure their alibi.
Cuda is desperate for forge a relationship with estranged daughter, Lola (Vivian Milkova), but she's tired of him letting her down. So, he channels his paternal instincts into helping 15 year-old foster runaway, Billie (Zolee Griggs), after he catches her shoplifting. However, she's abducted from the hotel room he's booked for her and he sets out to find her with Stray, who has just started dating Lexus (Alexis Ren), whom he met at the pole-dancing club where Estelle (who also has the hots for Lexus) has her office.
Having iced the hotel clerk who had tipped off bordello owner Freddie (2 Chainz) about Billie, Cuda visits his premises to collect a debt for Estelle. He spots Billie and Stray warns him that Freddie's not to be messed with. But Cuda is furious that Estelle is involved with underage prostitution and, when she orders a henchman to `retire' him, he kills him against the odds. Livid with Stray for helping Cuda, Estelle pulls a gun on him, only for Lexus to shoot her.
Ordering the lovers to flee with the cash from Freddie's, Cuda goes to the brothel and liberates the girls. He confronts Freddie, only to take a bullet. But Billie shoots Freddie in the throat and is about to kill Cuda when he explains he has come to rescue her.
Leaving Lola his car for her 16th birthday, Cuda dies between palm trees on the beach. Stray (whose real name is Ricky) heads north and opens a garage with Lexus and Billie. He asks them to turn up the radio when `Everybody's Gotta Learn Sometime' by The Korgis comes on.
Both Humphrey Bogart and Clint Eastwood have headlined films entitled The Enforcer (directed by Bretaigne Windust in 1951 and James Fargo in 1976) and it's safe to say that Banderas isn't quite in their league. But he's a charismatic performer capable of better things than this nasty piece of work and he manages to impart a little dignity into a character who is little more than a fotofit good baddie.
He's luckier with the dialogue than Bosworth, who deserves better than the risible guff served up for her by Iliff. His plotting is scarcely better, as he forces us to believe that Cuda is such a dutiful dolt that it simply hadn't occurred to him that his boss was involved with the seedy dealings imperilling his surrogate daughter.
Abetted by cinematographer Callan Green and editors Damian Gomez and Mattias Morheden, Hughes makes a decent fist out of the action sequences. But, in denouncing trafficking and the exploitation of women, he makes sure we see plenty of exposed flesh to ensure we get the message. Unfathomably, there is still a market for thick-ear pictures like this and they will continue to clunk around the bottom of the barrel as long as stars of the magnitude of Antonio Banderas sign up for the pay cheques.