As I watched the opening credits of the "revisionist western" Brothers in Arms roll by, I noticed the name of writer/director Jean-Claude La Marre. That name sounded familiar...
I accessed the geek bible (the IMDb, of course) and got the reminder I needed: La Marre was the actor turned filmmaker who directed a movie called Gang of Roses, a black-girl-western movie that still stands as one of the most hilarious things I've seen in a decade. And Gang of Roses is not a comedy.
So I lean in to take a closer look at Brothers in Arms, which I now expect to be a guy version of his earlier flick. And I wasn't wrong. But despite all the howlingly bad dialogue, the amazingly poor action scenes, the flat and unconvincing look of the movie, and the endless moments of time-filler mega-babble ... Brothers in Arms is still better than Gang of Roses by about a country mile.
Unfortunately, Mr. La Marre has yet to learn one valuable lesson: If you're going to create an "urban" take on the old Western cliches (and hey, why not?), leave the hip-hop music out of the equation. Brothers in Arms is meant to take place firmly in the old-school Western era, and nothing yanks a viewer right out of that era quicker than a cacophony of anachronistic (and just plain old bad) hip-hop music. (OK, hip-hop music and a screenplay this bad; that's two things.)
The plot is simplicity itself: Two brothers gather their old gang back together so they can all rob a bank. The town surrounding the bank is owned by an evil rich bastard of some sort, and each of our one-note anti-heroes has some sort of grudge against the rich bastard, his son, and their resident bounty hunter. This guy shoots that guy, another guy shoots someone else, there's a bunch of shootings all at once, and then the movie ends. And still the hip-hop rings through your ears.
The alleged "good guys" are drawn with one color apiece. One's a slick gambler type with a grudge, another's a disgraced priest, ah, and one's a woman who likes to hold up stagecoaches by strapping dynamite to her chest. Again, these are the heroes.
As Linc, the leader of the gang (and therefore the blandest and least interesting), Gabriel Casseus does the best with what he's given, and the guy makes it through this cardboard cut-out of a Western without breaking a sweat. Antwon Moore, Raymond Cruz, and Kurupt deliver La Marre's purple prose with all the enthusiasm it deserves, which is very little. As the Caucasian (and therefore very stupid and/or plain evil) characters, we have David Carradine in full-on mega-bastard mode, Peter Greene as his stunningly unpleasant son, and Ed Lauter as a mayor who talks exactly like W.C. Fields.
Again: Not a comedy.
And then there are the action scenes, and the first one out of the gate tells you all you need to know about Mr. La Marre's directorial style. As Linc and his brother are confronted by six armed men, we quickly see random hands reach for random guns, four or five mystery bits of blurry footage click by ... and the six gunmen drop to the ground, dead, as our heroes congratulate each other on their masterful aim. This formula will be repeated (several times) as the movie goes on.
Look, I don't care if a Western is all black, all Asian, or half-Eskimo, half-Irish -- but there's simply not much excuse for a movie this technically deficient. The frequent scenes of aimless banter and back-story feel like nothing more than running-time packing materials; the characters never once evolve beyond stock players in Generic Western Plot #6; the story ambles from point to point with no sense of urgency, pacing, or internal logic; the whole thing looks chintzy and sounds even worse -- and still this is a better movie than Gang of Roses. Maybe three or four Westerns from now, La Marre will actually bang one out that's almost as good as Mario Van Peebles' Posse -- a movie that pretty much summed up the whole darn sub-genre (much like Bad Girls pretty much opened and closed the "feminist western") and doesn't exactly deserve such aspirations, but if anyone can do it, Jean-Claude La Marre can.
I'll be glad to give the filmmaker's next "urban Western" a fair shake -- but please, J.C., lay off the hip-hop. The old west didn't have any mixing tables.
Video: It's a widescreen (1.85:1) non-anamorphic transfer, which has some mild grain and fuzziness, but only when the camera is pointed towards a person or a building. Landscapes sure look nice.
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, which offers solid volume levels, crisp dialogue, and lots of bad music.
Extras: There's a 15-minute featurette entitled Brothers in Arms: The Making of a Modern Western in which cast members talk about the movie in between nuggets of Jean-Claude La Marre spouting some of the most grandeur-deluded and pretentious ponderings you'll ever hear. The guy's clearly very smart, which makes it easy to understand how he can talk out of his ass so effortlessly. "Stylistically, I think I'm a visual director," he says, "I think I have a strong grasp of composition, understanding how to tell a story through the visual medium." The guy sounds like he just read the introductory paragraph to Filmmaking 101. Hey, Jean-Claude, a director who's not "visual" is a radio producer.
Basically, this sort of misplaced hubris is the direct result of the DVD medium. Without the demand for "special features," we'd never get to hear the self-important ruminations of schlock filmmakers who, somehow, think they're John Ford meets Spike Lee. But seriously: don't take my word for it; drop Brothers in Arms into your rental basket, watch the movie, and then watch the featurette. You tell me this guy's not a bit deluded. David Carradine compares him, in a roundabout way, to Quentin Tarantino, while Kurupt says he's as good as Ron Shelton. And then La Marre comes back to tell us that Brothers in Arms is his "eighth feature film," when the IMDb lists only five, none of which you've ever heard of. Way to pad that resumé, J.C.!
There's also a collection of trailers for 7 Seconds, Dave Chappelle: For What It's Worth, Kung Fu Hustle, Layer Cake, Rescue Me, The Cave, The Marksman, Urban Legends: Bloody Mary, and Columbia's Classic Westerns.
I'm sure there's a wide and willing audience for Mr. La Marre's string of "Urban Westerns," and the folks at Sony Home Video clearly agree. But speaking as an open-minded and passionate fan of the Western genre, Brothers in Arms would have been pretty darn laughable with actors of any race, creed, or color.
But, and this is the last time I'll mention it, if La Marre can make another leap of improvement like he did between Gang of Roses and Brothers in Arms, he may actually make a good movie someday.