If there’s something that you should know about me going in to this review it’s that I absolutely adore Kiefer Sutherland. I think he’s a wonderful actor and devilishly handsome. I’ve loved him since I first saw his 80s films and continued to lust after him throughout every series of 24 and beyond. It’s potentially kinda creepy but there is something about his voice that just gets me every time. Even when he’s threatening to shove a towel down someone’s throat and pull it back out. So sexy. I know it’s really fucking dull to tell other people about your dreams but I once had a great one concerning Kiefer and his father, Donald Sutherland. I was dream dating Kiefer Sutherland and went to meet his family. I accidentally spilled my drink on the floor and Donald Sutherland shouted at me. I think it’s the most realistic dream I’ve ever had because if I did meet Donald Sutherland I’d definitely do something fucking stupid and he’d hate me instantly. Still, that depressing little fact isn’t going to stop me enjoying my fave father-son duo starring in a Western together. That sounds like heaven to me.
Not that I want to start sounding like a broken record but I’ve often thought Seth MacFarlane is my ideal man. He’s clearly hilarious, likes classic musicals and sings like fucking Frank Sinatra. Due in part to my continuing romantic delusions, I was very much looking forward to his latest film A Million Ways to Die in the West. To be honest though what isn’t there to be excited about? Wild West setting, Liam Neeson and Charlize Theron, and a shit ton of gratuitous violence: sounds ideal.
A Million Ways to Die came about after an off the cuff remark about how shitty it would have been to live during this deadly time period. MacFarlane set about researching American history and a full script was created with the help of his regular collaborators, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild. After the huge success MacFarlane and co had with Ted in 2012 there was a great deal of anticipation for this star studded follow-up.
Unlike his decision with A Million Ways’ predecessor in which only his voice was featured, MacFarlane steps into centre stage and casts himself as our leading man. Albert is a mild mannered sheep farmer who is not only bad at his job but also ill suited for life in the Old West. After losing his girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried) to his moustachioed nemesis Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), Albert challenges him to a gunfight. With some help from the mysterious and beautiful Anna (Charlize Theron) Albert montages his way to becoming a successful cowboy.
Anyone who knows of MacFarlane’s back catalogue will know that his sense of humour often falls on the wrong side of crude or risqué. Unfortunately for A Million Ways, the humour also falls, at least predominantly, on the wrong side of lazy. There are a fair few laughs to be had along the way but there is little to get inspired by. The film has delusions of grandeur and believes itself to be something akin to Blazing Saddles. Sadly though, MacFarlane’s second-feature film just comes across as one of the dribbling patients in the corner of a mental hospital dreaming that they’re someone else.
I doubt the humour is helped by MacFarlane’s performance. We all know he has a pretty tight grasp on comic timing but place him in a live setting and everything becomes awkward. He just looks uncomfortable on screen and there is never any sense that Albert is anything other than MacFarlane but surrounded by sheep.
Thankfully the rest of the cast are on steadier ground and both Sarah Silverman, playing a pious prostitute, and Alex Borstein, as the whorehouse Madame, offer us some straight shooting comedy in an otherwise aimless affair. Also, for the limited time he gets to do anything, the great Liam Neeson is a standout as the fearsome gunslinger Clinch. However, he is relegated to an underused side note with no real drama and even fewer jokes.
This isn’t the tightest script ever written and the action gets lost in a great deal of unnecessary subplots. Unfortunately, we are also presented with undeniable proof that MacFarlane’s trademark patchwork narratives doesn’t work in a normal full-length feature. There are some funny moments that pop in and out but the often take precedence over the main story. More effort is put into creating singular moments, sight gags and pop culture cameos than there was put into creating a clever and logical storyline.
I wanted to like this film but ended up being incredibly disappointed. There was very little that I could celebrate in the end. Although, there is no denying that the visuals of A Million Ways are good enough to rival any classic Western and Joel McNeely’s musical score is something pretty magical.
It’s just unfortunate that this whole project is just tainted by MacFarlane and co’s vanity post-Ted. It was a fun idea to begin with but it seems to have spiralled out of control. With a plot that makes several detours through Native American Communities and group dance routines and a leading man who is clearly overwhelmed by the role, A Million Ways to Die in the West just feels like an amateur film students hastily written Western parody which, for some stupid reason, wasted many of its greatest moments on the trailers.
Just a few months ago, Quentin Tarantino was showing us exactly how you can update the old Western for a modern audience. However, it would show questionable parenting skills if you happily took your 10 year old with you to enjoy the bloody revenge saga. So this can only mean there is a gap in the market for a good, old fashioned family friendly narrative set in the Wild West, right? Well maybe but even if audiences were crying out for a new cowboy hero it certainly can’t have been the Lone Ranger. The original radio series started in 1933 and the television show was popular in the 50s. Not exactly the typical Disney demographic. Nobody has been patiently waiting for this character to get a new outing and, quite frankly, it was always going to be difficult to translate it for a modern world. This isn’t like getting the same freedom you would making a film out of a pirate theme park ride. With something like the Lone Ranger you are forced to stick to certain traditions… even the questionably racist ones. You have to ask who exactly were Disney creating this film for.
Although the answer to that is painfully obvious: Johnny Depp. After director Gore Verbinski put the idea into his head that he could play the Lone Ranger’s Native American sidekick there was no stopping him. We sat on the sidelines of a production full of drama with its apparently limitless budget, expanding schedule and almost free reign for one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars. It’s a horrible example of everything that’s wrong with the industry: throwing money, CGI and big names together with the aim to make nothing more than a bucket load of cash. I’ll admit there was always a part of me that hoped this film would fail as it might start a chain of events to change all that. It is with only a slight amount of joy that it seems my wish was granted. The Lone Ranger was torn apart by critics and opened to disappointing numbers in America. So have audiences simply fallen out of love with Johnny Depp or was it that the Lone Ranger, unlike other recent rebooted franchises, simply has no place in the heart of a modern audience?
There is no way anyone with a deep knowledge of film can ignore the influences that have prepared the director for his latest work and there are plenty of sneaky in jokes for them to pick up on. The film would comfortably sit within the history of blaxploitation cinema (with links to films like 1975’s Mandigo amongst others) and, no matter what Tarantino tries to tell us with his talk of “Southerns”, there is little to suggest that Django Unchained would be uncomfortable within the world of Spaghetti Westerns. From the opening credits using the old Columbia logo to the blood-red titles and the whip zooms, the whole thing screams Western. There is an obvious homage to the 1966 film Django thanks to the use of the theme song over the opening titles and a brief cameo by the original Django’s Franco Nero. The final credits of the film utilises music from another influence They Call Me Trinity from 1970. The two films have dramatically different tones with Django being a gruesomely violent melodrama whilst Trinity is a more comic affair where the hero prefers to forgo violence for cheekiness. These two pieces of music sum up the slightly bipolar tone of Tarantino’s latest historical epic. We are treated to an outrageously violent, gruesome Western/blaxploitation hybrid alongside a keen sense of comedy and fun. Although, is this kind of duality the correct setting for a film dealing with such a controversial and risqué topic?
Django Unchainedopens to find our hero, scarred but not yet broken, chained to his fellow slaves before a life changing encounter with German born bounty hunter Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). In need of Django’s help to track down three of his targets, the eloquent stranger offers him the chance to be free. Luckily the recently released slave proves to be a natural at this killing for money malarkey and they go into business together. Years in captivity don’t really seem like the usual training ground for a gifted assassin but Django could easily be up there with the best bounty hunters; standing as an equal alongside Rick Deckard, Boba Fett and Dog. The films first act, following Django and Schultz chasing bounties across the snow covered mountains and plains of Tennessee is incredibly enjoyable and, though not all of it is relevant, is full of genuinely funny moments. Their brief encounter with an inept band of the KKK is pure Mel Brooks.