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When Pathé Films took over both Cannon and MGM late in the 1980s, they inherited a couple of good projects already in production. The Russia House proved to be less than glorious but Simon Wincer's Australia-filmed Quigley Down Under did a little better at the box office. The story of a wild-west dead shot's adventures abroad began life as a vehicle for Steve McQueen. Some said that, along with the Flying Tigers saga Tiger Ten, it was next on his "to film" list when he died in 1980.
Quigley Down Under is a neat little package, an unpretentious western that sends a Yankee westerner to the wide open spaces of the Australian outback. The perfectly cast Tom Selleck stars, along with Laura San Giacomo, who achieved instant visibiity in Steve Soderbergh's breakthrough comedy drama Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Equally smart casting comes in the form of Alan Rickman, who in 1988's Die Hard became America's newest favorite bad guy. As with almost all Australia-shot pictures, the desert vistas make a good semi-western setting -- except for all of those accents, the transport by oxcart instead of Conestoga wagon, and the presence of native Aborigines in place of native American Indians.
Matthew Quigley (Tom Selleck) debarks in Perth, Australia, and right on the dock is compelled to defend the honor of what seems to be a deranged prostitute, fellow American Crazy Cora (Laura San Giacomo). They find themselves on a cart being ferried overland to the enormous ranch of Elliott Marston (Alan Rickman). Marston runs his spread with hired toughs, most of which are ex-convicts exiled from the British Isles. Enjoying a special arrangement with the local militia Major Ashley-Pitt (Chris Haywood), Marston seeks to control his livestock losses by killing all the aboriginals his men can find. But the natives have learned to stay outside of normal rifle range. That's where Quigley comes in -- with his Sharps rifle he can shoot objects hundreds of yards away. Marston informs Matthew of his new job over dinner, and isn't prepared when the American runs amuck. The land baron has Quigley and Crazy Cora taken out to the deep desert, where the harsh elements will be sure to kill them. Of course, getting rid of Matthew isn't that easy.
Director Simon Wincer shows a flair for action that gives Quigley Down Under the look and feel of a classic western. He's also sufficiently comfortable with character interaction to keep his show interesting almost all the way through. The script by John Hill (reportedly an uncredited contributor to Close Encounters of the Third Kind) keeps things light and quirky until after Matthew and Cora are on their own in the desert. The heavier content, with Cora explaining why she's "crazy", comes as a fairly pleasant surprise, as does the pair's rescue by aborigines. These desert nomads were fairly new to Americans unfamiliar with Peter Weir and Nicolas Roeg pictures. Marston's hired hands shoot them like rabbits and herd them off a cliff, until Quigley opens fire with his long distance rifle. I'm happy to say that the aboriginal characters are interesting in themselves, and not simply as victims for the rotten Marston. Some of the old-sage actors appear to have worked again in Wim Wenders' Until the End of the World.
The movie becomes tiring only after it becomes a standard revenge tale. Marston is beyond-the-pale evil, and loses a great deal of his interest. The aborigines naturally inspire our heroes, who grow from the experience. Crazy Cora tends an orphaned aboriginal baby, successfully defending it against wild dingo dogs. The experience becomes a psychological rite, a personal atonement for the tragedy back in Texas in which she lost both her family and her self-respect.
Quigley meets a gunsmith in a coastal town, getting replacement ammo made for his off-gauge monster of a rifle, and unfortunately bringing more trouble with him. The problem is that all of these interesting situations eventually step aside, so Quigley Down Under can just be a movie about Matthew shooting off that gun ad infinitum.
The first couple of shooting incidents are liberating, as bad guys find themselves blown out of their saddles. When hit by giant buffalo-hunting slugs fired from half a mile away, they're knocked literally for a loop. The bullets reach their targets quite a bit sooner than the sound report from Quigley's gun is heard. But that's Quigley's entire bag of tricks. As in every almost every action western since the genre imploded in the late 1960s, the last act simply sees Matthew facing off with a couple of dozen ranch hands, including one or two that consider themselves fancy shots. We have little or no doubt who will be the winner, walking into the sunset over a barnyard practically stacked with dead bodies. The script leaves a pretty good quick-draw joke for the final confrontation, sort of a repurposed Clint Eastwood moment. It's merely okay.
Tom Selleck is just fine as the handsome, seasoned westerner. He's definitely the classic hero type, with a twist of politeness and a talent for good-natured mayhem. Laura San Giacomo is certainly pleasant enough as the warped Crazy Cora, and it would have been nice if a bit more were done with her therapeutic experience. She and Quigley grow fond of each other, but it doesn't exactly look like love. As I said before, Alan Rickman is introduced as a potentially fascinating villain, but what we see is what we get. He's just a pig. We wonder why one of his own men doesn't blow his head off. He's certainly willing to do the same to any of them.
MGM/Fox's Blu-ray of Quigley Down Under is a beauty. Westerns in Hi-Def can look sensational, and this show is an almost unbroken string of relaxing scenery. One of the pleasures of westerns is just enjoying action that unfolds in such gloriously beautiful surroundings. Cinematographer David Eggby moved on to many international assignments after his Australian start with George Miller's Mad Max.
Quigley Down Under is one of those MGM discs that will repeat endlessly unless manually stopped. So be sure to hit the menu button to find the extras: a featurette, TV spots and an original trailer.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Quigley Down Under Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.