There's one great line - just one, so make it last - in the nasty, cheap low budget western "The Man Who Came Back." Our hero, a Civil War veteran and gentle family man named Reese Paxton, has escaped from prison to seek revenge on the men who sent him there, the same men who later murdered his wife and son. He enters a saloon/brothel late at night and helps himself to some whiskey. The madam discovers him and asks who will pay for the drink. Reese, now cold-blooded and determined, replies, simply, "Everybody pays."
It's a nice moment, setting up the film's second half, in which Reese sets out to take down the whole damn dirty town. But it doesn't work, because it's in the wrong spot; the scene, which exists to set up the impending revenge, comes after Reese has started that revenge, not before. By this point, we've already had a fire and a murder, both Reese's doing. The coming storm has already arrived, and there's no point now of leading up to it. The scene fails.
"The Man Who Came Back" is riddled with moments like this, little bits that must've sounded clever on paper, but fall apart in execution. Other parts work on their own but can't connect - or flat-out just don't fit - with the rest of the movie.
Most glaring is the Thibodeaux Massacre of 1887, the mass slaughter of striking plantation workers; it earns its own title card at the end, asking us to mull over a dark day in history, even though the movie's not about the massacre, barely shows the massacre, and is only tangentally related to the massacre. But writers Glen Pitre (who also directs) and Chuck Walker seem dead set on including a tribute to those who were killed in the incident, never mind dramatic logic.
(For all the talk of the massacre and its victims, the movie doesn't have much use for black characters, and rarely knows what to do with them. The former slaves of this film spend too much time either fawning over our hero or being brutalized by the villains. The film shows little interest in their side of the story, but then, it also shows little interest in the actual facts of the massacre, figuring "striking blacks" and "lots of gunfire" equates an accurate portrayal of history. How can a movie spend so much time touting itself as a tribute to history, but get that history wrong?)
At times, you can see the writers openly not bothering. Billy Zane is cast as the meek new sheriff in town. The film is packed with gusts stars out of place - George Kennedy, Carol Alt, Sean Young, Armand Assante - but none are more miscast than Zane, who turns his role into comic relief. Fine, except Zane achieves this comic relief by stubbornly repeating his trademark laid-back, smart-ass style, all blasé mannerisms and bemused asides. He's too casual, too smarmy for this movie, but his performance remains, perhaps because the filmmakers were so happy to get Billy Zane, they didn't care if the performance never matched the tone of the story.
And on it goes. Convinced that the film deserves a graphic love scene between Reese and the madam, and unhindered by the fact that the two characters do not share a romantic relationship, the screenplay gives us a daydream fantasy in which the madam imagines herself writhing atop the hero in sexual bliss. It's such a bizarre cutaway that even those who will rent the film for all its R-rated blood and breasts will roll their eyes.
And oh, this is a brutal movie. Ugliness abounds here, but the filmmakers never quite know how to translate such bitter energy into engaging storytelling. The movie sits in an uncomfortable neutral zone between guilty pleasure-style exploitation and something more somber, less glorified. At times, you can feel the writers pushing for a frank portrayal of what's lost within as one is consumed by revenge and a thirst for nasty violence. At other times, you can feel the writers saying, "Hey, we can show boobies!" (Usually, the cheapness wins out.)
There's one scene, mid-movie, in which a villager, regretting his part in wrongfully convicting Reese, is murdered by his co-conspirator, while in the next room, the man's money-grubbing wife prostitutes herself to a hired thug. Here, perhaps more than anywhere else in the film, the lines between gross exploitation and earnest drama evaporate. Is the cross-cutting between the almost sexual murder and the violent intercourse a dark punchline meant to illustrate some clever parallel, or is it just there for tasteless thrills? I'm not sure the movie even knows.
Ah, but everything else is off, too. Eric Braeden, the twenty year veteran of "The Young and the Restless," stars as Reese. On the surface, this is fine casting; Braenden's craggy face suggests a man who's lived through too much, while his soft, restrained voice suggests a hero of few words, boiling with rage on the inside, cool on the surface. But Reese Paxton is a role requiring great physicality, and the sixtysomething soap star cannot oblige. Choppy editing is employed to hide Braeden's stiff moves in every fight scene, but we're not fooled. His performance is filled with awkward poses passing as physical struggles.
The rest of the film is clumsily shot in a bland style by Pitre, who's comfortable allowing his characters to stumble their way through the plot, punctuating the story with weak pacing and amateurish melodrama. "The Man Who Came Back" is a mess, bloated and brutal in all the wrong places.
Video & Audio
Most of the problems with the film's 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer appear to be a result of iffy source material. Grain abounds in all the darkly lit scenes, a telltale sign of digital video done badly; one short scene even reveals some unusual ghosting on Braeden. Colors are muted, but that seems intentional. A couple quick shots are mildly out of focus, and that doesn't seem so intentional.
The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack fares much, much better. The surround speakers boom with gunfire and other effects, while dialogue and music remain clear. Optional English and Spanish subtitles are provided.
Eric Braeden, writer/director Glen Pitre, and writer Chuck Walker team up for a lively and informative commentary track. They obviously enjoy the final product and the efforts it took to get there, and their chat covers all bases in terms of production.
Ten deleted scenes (10:06 total; 1.78:1 anamorphic) consist mainly of tiny character moments, including more regarding Reese's relationship with the striking workers. "Tiny" is the key word here; many cuts are so minor (ooh, twenty extra seconds of a sex scene!), one wonders why they were included at all.
The "Red Carpet Premiere of The Man Who Came Back" (5:27; 1.78:1 anamorphic) offers a few brief interviews with cast and crew.
The film's trailer (1:26; 1.78:1 flat anamorphic) and a collection of other Lionsgate previews round out the set. Those bonus previews also play as the disc loads.
"The Man Who Came Back" has the potential for an enjoyable grimy revenge thriller. Instead, it comes off as a shambles, poorly constructed and thoroughly uneven. Skip It.