There's a lot in "Shadowheart" we've seen before, a standard Old West revenge tale peppered with haunted heroes, friendly natives, and a lawless town. It's an impressive production, considering its low budget, and although there are plenty of shaky moments throughout, its script is clever enough to make the story's familiarity endearing, not stale. It's a rough but admirable work, an obvious labor of love by and for fans of the genre.
But then we come to the villain, and the whole game changes. For here we have a bad guy so expertly crafted, in both script and performance, that the whole movie is elevated. Played with fearless verve by Angus Macfadyen, Will Tunney is a character who's at once terrifying and mesmerizing, a force of nature who's allowed some unexpected depth.
When we first meet Tunney, he's a low-life drunk, grimy, creepy, not too bright. He's also quick with his temper and his gun, making him all too dangerous, a crude imbecile who seems to only know two things: how to kill and how to get away with it. He bluntly murders the town preacher (William Sadler, in an effective cameo) in broad daylight, then claims self defense, a plea the sheriff (Charles Napier) begrudgingly accepts. When the preacher's young son, James (Christian Fortune), confronts the killer, Tunney offers his own knife and dares the boy to strike back, then violently - yet effortlessly, as if an afterthought - throws him to the floor when nothing comes of it.
All of this unfolds in a few quick minutes, and while we're taken with how quickly James' life is forever changed, the real keeper is how we're stunned by Tunney's unchecked fury, and how the town of Legend, New Mexico is willing to tolerate his presence (perhaps out of total fear).
The story then leaps forward - James, who left town that night, abandoning his young love and vowing not to return until he's man enough to take revenge, has grown up to become a coldhearted bounty hunter. Whatever parts of his father's teachings of peace and forgiveness remained when he left town burned away during the Civil War, where he witnessed unfathomable violence. James (here played by newcomer Justin Ament) now has a reputation as someone who'd rather bring in his bounty dead than alive. When he finds a wanted poster for Tunney, he decides it's time to return to Legend.
The poster shows an unkempt, savage Tunney, the same Tunney we left - but this does not match with the Tunney we find upon returning to Legend. He's now cleancut and slick, wealthy and powerful, the mayor of Legend. We're not sure how the Tunney of the film's prologue could have possibly evolved into this new man, but that's what makes him all the more frightening. We know he's still a ruthless killer, but here he's in charge, making him all the more unstoppable.
He got smart, too. After swindling the townsfolk out of their property in anticipation of the coming railroad and the increased values it will bring, Tunney owns all of Legend, enjoying his stern rule. He's learned patience, and if his impulsive violence was alarming, consider how more dangerous he must be now that he's able to plan ahead, to calmly map out his game with ease.
Macfadyen is utterly captivating in the role, milking every ounce of villainy from his scenes, allowing himself to be utterly despised in the great villain tradition. The script - from Dean Alioto (who also directs), Peter Vanderwall, and Brad Goodman, from a story by Ament - adds some classic touches: he's infatuated with James' former flame Mary (Marnie Alton), to the point of obsession; he doesn't seem to understand why she's not drawn to a man of such power. It's likely he notices the affections of a scheming, Lady Macbeth-esque prostitute (Ines Dali), chosing to ignore her in order to ogle Mary's virginal beauty instead.
Tunney surrounds himself with a collection of crooked gunmen, most notably the sharpshooter Spider (Alioto, casting himself in a restrained and rather cool performance). These henchmen provide a sort of wall around the mayor, making James' task of revenge all the more difficult - and making Tunney all the more fascinating. The more untouchable he becomes, the bigger he gets on a scale of grand villainy. (He's even repainted the town church a shade of burning red. It's as if Tunney is the devil himself.)
The rest of the story takes us through some familiar territory. The main plot deals with James' inner struggles, torn between the vengeance he desperately seeks and the sense of peace Mary offers. If he kills Tunney, she argues, won't that make him just as bad? Later, James befriends two Navajo - the serene Miakoda (Tonantzin Carmelo) and the brash Washakie (Michael Spears) - who've escaped from a nearby reservation; Miakoda, like Mary, asks James to leave his violent past behind him.
For a while, it seems to work. Ament is a baby-faced young actor, and when James finally shaves off his gruff mustache and washes off the dirt, the fresh look underneath seems like an entirely other person, a gentler soul eager to return to the passiveness his father once taught him.
Ah, but it'd be a shame for a revenge oater like this to wrap up so nicely, so we're soon treated to some rip roarin' adventure, guns a-blazin'. Alioto crafts some tense, tight action scenes, deftly building up the tension, the punctuating it with quick bursts of sudden violence. And at its center is Macfadyen's Tunney, a relentless force that will not be defeated.
There's a roughness to several scenes that Alioto can't avoid; some of the supporting performances are off the mark, while a subplot involving comic relief railroad employees is oddly enjoyable yet feels too out of place. Most distracting is an epilogue which plays up the themes of redemption yet, in a way, wind up muddying the message. It's a message that makes things interesting - is a good man who does wicked things still good? is it always preferable to turn the other cheek? - the epilogue's completely unambiguous nature punctures the debate.
But only slightly. "Shadowheart" remains a cracking adventure through and through, and a fine treat for Western fans. Macfadyen's Tunney is of course the main attraction here, a villain so sharply constructed that his every movement enthralls. The young cast also does a solid job, holding their own against their veteran castmates, and Alioto's direction is tight and involving. There's life in the world of the low budget oater, and "Shadowheart" is bursting with it.
Video & Audio
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen looks decent here, with deep, rich colors and a nice crispness. There's some minimal grain in some scenes, but it's passable.
The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack does a fine job of balancing dialogue and effects. Music comes through splendidly, although most of the action remains up front. Optional English SDH subtitles are included.
Alioto delivers a dry but informative commentary track, consisting mainly of standard making-of notes. Avoiding the numerous gaps in conversation, it's a decent listen.
"Shadowheart: Behind the Scenes" (8:19; 1.78:1 anamorphic) offers some nice making-of information scattered among the basic cast and crew interviews.
The film's spoiler-heavy trailer (2:54) rounds out the disc. A batch of previews for other Anchor Bay releases plays as the disc loads.
"Shadowheart" is a solid little western that becomes something special on the strength of its villain, a well-written and brilliantly performed baddie. Solid performances from its younger leads and some smartly paced action add to the appeal. Highly Recommended.