Thursday, December 9, 2010

Film Review: WILD BILL (1995, Walter Hill)

Stars: 2.7 of 5.
Running Time: 98 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Jeff Bridges (STARMAN, THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT, CUTTER'S WAY), Ellen Barkin (THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI, DOWN BY LAW), John Hurt (I, CLAUDIUS; THE HIT), Diane Lane (THE COTTON CLUB, RUMBLE FISH), Keith Carradine (NASHVILLE, SOUTHERN COMFORT), David Arquette (THE OUTSIDERS TV series, SCREAM), Christina Applegate (DON'T TELL MOM THE BABYSITTER'S DEAD, MARS ATTACKS!), James Remar (48 HRS., QUIET COOL), Bruce Dern (THE GREAT GATSBY, SILENT RUNNING). Based on the book DEADWOOD by Peter Dexter and the play by Thomas Babe.
Tag-line: "Take a walk on the wild side."
Best one-liner: "You ought to know better than to touch another man's hat."

Where to begin, WILD BILL? Let's start with the good. I'm a Walter Hill fan. I'm a fan of most of the talented, eclectic cast whose members include the commanding and mustachioed Jeff Bridges, the eloquent John Hurt, the soothingly intense Keith Carradine, the mysterious and sultry Diane Lane, and the lovably psychotic James Remar. There's fast and furious, well-choreographed gunfights which recall the quick-drawin', squinty-eyed triumphs of Sergio Leone.

There's a scene where Wild Bill shoots a shot glass off the back of a hapless pooch while he aims backwards, through a mirror.

There's Keith Carradine (who later played perhaps filmdom's finest Wild Bill on HBO's DEADWOOD) as Buffalo Bill in a zany scene showcasing Wild Bill's legendarily awful acting in the money-grubbing play 'SCOUTS OF THE PLAINS.'

There's a genius scene depicting a geriactric-style gunfight between a crippled Bruce Dern...

...and a smart-assed Wild Bill, who's had himself tied to a chair to make it a fair fight.

In fact, Dern practically steals the movie playing this wheelchair-bound, irascible, grizzled madman-

and it's a role that he's pretty much (BIG LOVE, MONSTER, THE ASTRONAUT FARMER) been playing ever since. (And to be fair, he was generally playing it before, too.)

We got John Hurt narrating and raising eyebrows and classin' up the joint

and even getting punched out by James Remar.

We got Remar bustin' in and and bellowing the rhetorical question, "A FIVE DOLLAR WHORE'S GONNA TELL ME ABOUT STREET TRASH?!" to a hooker played by...uh, Christina Applegate.

Wait, that must be a typo. Surely I meant to type 'Susan Tyrrell' or 'Candy Clark' or 'Grace Zabriskie'...but no such luck. It's not all peaches and cream, ladies and gentlemen. Christina Applegate is indeed in this movie, and though it pains me to say it, she's far from being the most absolutely, hair-raisingly loco element included in the film.

Now would probably be a good time to mention that WILD BILL is sort of structured like THE DOORS. We flash-forward and flash-back and wash out to events throughout Wild Bill's life, as if trapped in a interminable time warp, an ouroboros of violence and blood and dirt and whiskey. That's fine. It establishes the sense of violence that pervades Wild Bill's very being. But things start to get a little wonky as soon as we got drug trips and opium hallucinations and use of high-contrast black-and-white video art-lookin' sequences full of bizarre, Oliver Stone-style Native American mysticism

which, for all intents and purposes, are unwatchable until Diane Lane shows up, at which point they become only barely watchable.

Diane Lane: a real dish, even in high-contrast video-art-installation-style sequences.

All of this would be excusable if they were going the all-out arthouse route, but then we have pandering- I assume to the studio, but who knows– altering the historical record in a manner which can only be described as "thoroughly cockamamie." 'Colorado' Charlie Utter inexplicably becomes Charlie Prince (the John Hurt character). Jack McCall (Bill's assassin) is no longer a young, poker-luvin' douche who impulsively shot Bill in the back over a card game and a subsequent gesture of (quite possibly mocking) kindness. He's a pretty-boy (...played by David Arquette) avenging the honor of his mother, Susannah (Diane Lane), who has Bill at gunpoint about 3,000 times during the course of the movie but only acts on it during the finale.

Now, the historical McCall, most likely trying to save his own ass, claimed that Wild Bill had killed his brother and he was seeking revenge, but to tie it in with the Susannah Moore/Davis Tutt incident is not only kinda historically irresponsible, but it also works to the detriment of the story Hill is telling, unless he wanted the subject of his film to be a heavily fictionalized version of Jack McCall. Anyway, it doesn't really matter- the combining, editing, and altering of historical figures in cinema occurs with such frequency that it hardly bears ment–





I like Ellen Barkin. I really like Ellen Barkin. Nobody can say that I don't like Ellen Barkin. I guess what I mean to say is that she doesn't quite look the part.
Then again, I suppose that her depiction is something that Hollywood has always struggled with:
So, forget I said anything. Thank God, though, at least they didn't s–




...Well, let's end things on a positive note, shall we? Here's a clip I uploaded of James Remar, possibly worn down from multiple takes, giving Wild Bill's hat a hearty, dramatic thwack.

-Sean Gill


Anonymous said...

Personally I wouldn't be as hard on this film as you are, but you make some very amusing points. And the Ajax, I mean Remar, clip is a keeper!

J.D. said...

Ah, James Remar - he's always watchable no matter what film he's in! It's been ages since I've seen this film so I'm going off of foggy memories but I don't remember it being that bad. Alto, your DOORS analogy certainly seems an apt one. Maybe my memory is clouded with thoughts of Diane Lane being in the film... I dunno. I really gotta check this one out again. What did you think of Hill's LAST MAN STANDING, incidentally?

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

It was nice to see you cover this one Sean. I had been eyeing the film for some time.

Well, you kind of confirmed all of my concerns with this film in that the sum of all of its parts don't quite add up.

At least that's kind of what I took away from your fun read of this Walter Hill dandy.

I enjoy Walter Hill too. In fact, you are so right regarding your comment about Carradine playing an amazing Wild Bill in Deadwood. I loved him in that series. In fact I think Walter Hill even directed that first Deadwood episode if memory serves me correct.

Anyway, agree with you on Barkin. I like her, but she never suits a lot of films for me. : )

I love James Remar too. Thank God he was in The Warriors. He just keeps on keepin' on and his supporting role in Dexter is always terrific.

Anyway, enjoyed your coverage here and well I'm not likely to see this one anytime soon despite loving Jeff Bridges and many of the folk in this cast. Cheers Sean. Oh and Sean, thank you for the blog roll mention. I just noticed that! I really appreciate that sincerely.
Have a good one Sean.

Sean Gill said...

I've always had a soft spot for Remar, be it trimmin' mustaches in QUIET COOL, dancing up a storm in RENT-A-COP, or thwackin' WILD BILL's hat with such percussive flourish.

I mean, perhaps I occasionally exaggerate the levels of badness, but, as a Walter Hill fan, I definitely have to categorize this film as a mess. There're certain choice moments, but it gets pretty limp in the second half.

I'm almost ashamed to say that I haven't seen LAST MAN STANDING- I'm certainly a fan RED HARVEST and its every incarnation from YOJIMBO to A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS to MILLER'S CROSSING, so it stands to reason that I'd enjoy LMS. Are you a fan?

Sci-Fi Fanatic,

Thanks for stopping by- I'm very big on DEADWOOD and Mr. Carradine's interpretation. Hill did indeed direct the pilot of that series, so at least he got Wild Bill right on the second go. (Not that there's anything wrong with Bridges' performance in particular- he embodies the part with Kurt Russel-ish élan- it's the writing that's the biggest problem.)

You're very welcome on the blog roll mention- I've long enjoyed your site and the lovingly meticulous reviews therein!

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Completely agee on Deadwood.

Likewise my friend.

Sean, your site has been like a fine wine... it has revealed itself to me quite gradually in much the same way Radiator Heaven and the others I spotlight have come to me. I love returning here because of the wonderful posts. Off to read Vampires. Best to you, SFF

J.D. said...

Re: LAST MAN STANDING. Y'know, it has been ages since I've watched it but I remember not being too crazy about it when I did, which is insane considering who's in the film. And wasn't Bruce Willis just born to be a Walter Hill protagonist? I really need to check this out again. It has been waaaaay too long.

Sean Gill said...

Sci-Fi Fanatic,
Thank you for the compliments, and best to you as well!

Hopefully if I go in with low-ish expectations it'll prove to be a pleasant surprise. But Willis, Sanderson, Dern, Walken, and David Patrick Kelly?! I kinda don't see how it could be bad (though I said the same thing right before WILD BILL).