Mario Van Peebles' 1993 western Posse is set in 1898 and stars the director in the leading role of Jessie Lee, the captain of the 10th Cavalry unit who are sent to Cuba on what is essentially regarded as a suicide mission. Lee's unit is made up primarily of black soldiers and they're basically looked down upon by his commanding officer, Colonel Graham (Billy Zane). At any rate, while in Cuba the unit finds a stash of gold, which they take with them when they return to America, much to Graham's dismay. They head to New Orleans where a few of the men - Little J (Stephen Baldwin), Weezie (Charles Lane), Obobo (Tiny Lister Jr.) and Father Time (Big Daddy Kane) - decide it's time to leave the infantry and start new lives. The only problem with this noble idea is that Graham and some of his men are still looking for the guys who have the gold.
The group collectively decides to head to the west coast, but Jessie has ideas of his own. His father (played by Melvin Van Peebles) was lynched and killed by Klansmen. Jessie has figured out who the men under the white hoods really are and has decided that he's going to get revenge for his father's death. Unfortunately for Jessie, the Klansmen were lead by a Sheriff named Bates (Richard Jordan),a racist who intends to take control of his own town of Cuttersville and soon the neighboring black town of Freemansville which not so coincidently has been built on land that will soon go up in value when the railroad lines are built.
Posse is a seriously mixed bag of a film. Peebles obviously set out to tell an interesting story and shed some light on a part of American history that hasn't been covered the way that it should have been, but some glaring historical inaccuracies and anachronisms hurt the picture's credibility as there are too many liberties taken in that regard. Throw in a LOT of overacting and some bizarre costume choices for almost all of the female characters and maybe a little too much soul for the soundtrack to work in the context of the story being told and you've got a rather troubled production on a few different levels.
The film is not a complete waste, however. Van Peebles is actually pretty good in the lead, playing the tough guy well and looking as cool as any cowboy from any Western made within the last twenty years or so. He's got screen presence and he's got charisma and his efforts here go a long way towards at least making the picture watchable. Billy Zane makes for an entertaining bad guy but he overacts as he is apt to do and as such we can't really take him all too seriously as the heavy in the film. Some fun cameos pop up throughout the picture - not only does Sweet Sweetback himself, Melvin Van Peebles show up in a short part but Pam Grier, Isaac Hayes and Woody Strode are also given a little bit of screen time. Unfortunately it's just that, a little bit of screen time, and they aren't given much to do and it feels like little more than novelty casting on the filmmakers' part.
The film does feature some impressive action scenes. The shoot outs are tense and exciting and well shot and a few hand to hand combat scenes are also well done. The film is surprisingly violent and periodically quite trashy in the sex and nudity department, and the film winds up feeling more like a modern day blaxploitation picture than any sort of serious look at an unsung moment in the history of the American west. Very obviously influenced by Italian Spaghetti Westerns, Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West being the most obvious, the film unfortunately winds up going in too many directions at once and not doing any of them all that well and you wind up wondering if, had Van Peebles spent more time on creating a cohesive narrative rather than trying to shoot the coolest kill scenes while looking hunky in his leather outfit, if Posse might have turned out to be a great movie. The potential was there, but it just didn't happen - it's entertaining enough as a goofy B-western, but hard to take all that seriously.
Posse looks good on MGM's Blu-ray thanks to the AVC encoded 2.35.1 widescreen 1080p transfer. Eagle eyed viewers might spot some minor banding here and there and if you really look for it you can see a few specks on the screen as the movie plays out but aside from those fairly trivial issues the movie looks very good in high definition. Detail is vastly improved over the DVD, particularly in facial close ups which lend an appropriately weathered quality to the actors that suits the material very well. Texture is also impressive, you'll notice the fibers on the various costumes that the performers where in the movie and you'll be able to spot some dirt and grit on their weapons. Black levels aren't quite reference quality perfection but they're very strong while color reproduction is generally great from start to finish. This is, overall, a well authored release of some good looking source material that shows strong detail and depth.
The film sounds good on Blu-ray courtesy of MGM's DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio track, in English, with optional subtitles offered in a myriad of languages including English, French and Spanish. There's a lot of good channel separation here which helps to make the action scenes considerably stronger than they would have been otherwise. Levels are never less than perfectly balanced which ensures that the dialogue is easy to understand and follow save for a few scenes where the bass is a bit more powerful than maybe it needed to be. The score has some nice power to it and gunshots pack a good punch. A 5.1 mix might have opened things up more and made for a more engrossing experience, but what's here is good and you can't really fault it.
Aside from menus and chapter selection, the only extra on the disc is the theatrical trailer, but at least it's presented in high definition and in widescreen.
Posse gets a pretty nice upgrade on Blu-ray from MGM, and while there isn't much going on here in terms of extras, the sound and video are quite a bit improved over the previous DVD release. As to the movie itself, it's flawed but entertaining enough and it does benefit from an interesting cast and some memorable set pieces - this helps us overlook its problems. Probably not something you're going to want to watch over and over again, this is best served as a rental.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.