- Directed and written by William Phillips
- Starring Paul Gross and Sienna Guillory
- Classification: PG
A comic attempt to ride the American western north of the border, Gunless is harmless, the sort of pop entertainment that sets its sights low and doesn't underachieve. Like all such ventures, it is rooted in safe formulas and easy stereotypes, the difference being that it juggles two sets of clichés at once, both U.S. imports and home-grown Canadian, then tries to find a few laughs in the act, and a little meaning too. Well, if "a few" and "a little" are the targets, score a direct hit. A surfeit of ambition is not among this picture's sins.
The formula is as easy to spot as the star: Both are engaged in simple reversals of old conventions. Back in his Due South days, Paul Gross played the squeaky-clean Mountie bringing his polite brand of sleuthing to the mean streets of Chicago. Here, a century earlier, he's "the Montana Kid" taking his gunslinger rep in the other direction. Long-haired, dishevelled and really smelly, the Kid guides his weary nag into the tiny Canuck town of Barclay's Brush, and promptly engineers an altercation with the local blacksmith. Of course, his bulging holster at the ready, the sharpshooter "calls out" the burly smithy who, packing nothing but his pacific nature, does the Canadian thing - ignores him and walks away. Not for the last time, the Kid wonders aloud, "What is with these people?"
Cue the clash of titanic clichés, which might have been amusing had writer/director William Phillips breathed any fresh life into them. Instead, he's content to let a predictable battle unfold as we know it must. Naturally, then as now, the provincials are delighted to have Yankee infamy grace their midst, and thus invite the Kid for dinner, where he raises eyebrows and heart-rates with this hungry man remark: "I'd kill for some more potatoes." I regret to report that the joke does not come with an accompanying rim-shot.
Naturally, too, another upstanding Mountie make his de rigueur appearance, offering the Kid a lesson or two in moral rectitude and the value of the law. They bond over the beauty of the country's wide-open spaces, but, on certain matters, agree to disagree. Happily, returning to those matters, we are literally schooled when the town teacher, after dropping Aristotle's good name, ignites a debate on gun control. Seems the northern folk are of the opinion that deadly weapons lead to death, while their southern neighbour holds that "a gun is just a tool." That would put him in the tool-and-die business, but, to his credit, the Kid isn't one to prolong such verbal sparring matches. When it comes to palaver, he prefers quiet chats with his horse, who appears to be a patient listener.
Always an engaging presence, Gross does what he can with this tired icon, although his greatest struggle is with the hair and make-up department, and kudos on his victory - it takes panache to wear that unkempt wig without undue embarrassment. Hard to beat that achievement, yet Sienna Guillory manages the feat, bringing to the typically thankless role of the love-interest a radiating intelligence (shades of Cate Blanchett) that even this script can't dampen.
Yes, the script. It reminds me of the TV programming currently favoured by our public broadcaster, the kind that vows to be commercial without being stupid. To be sure, popular-and-smart is a laudable goal, the brass ring of show biz, and especially of subsidized show biz. There, to be hugely popular yet dumb is to invite artsy criticism from the left ("Why waste my tax dollars?), while to be hugely smart, yet unwatched, is to invite identical criticism from the right ("Why waste my tax dollars?").
So the pressure is decidedly on. But in each case, in this film and at the CBC, they're going about it in exactly the wrong fashion. They're starting out determined to be commercial, recycling safe formulas, and then hoping to add the clever bits en route. Now that road may lead to popularity, and good for them, but that's all it will lead to. To pretend otherwise is either hypocrisy or wishful thinking. (Since show-businessmen know that it's always smart to be popular, they come to believe that anything popular is always smart.)
Sorry, but the one true path to popular-and-smart heads in precisely the opposite direction - you must begin with the bright idea and only then give it some commercial torque. That path is thornier (bright ideas are hard to come by), that path is rockier (smart is tougher to sell), but it's the single way to get there. Those who wish to reverse it are, to use the period lingo of Gunless, just self-deluding pioneers putting the cart before the horse. Maybe the Kid had it right after all: What is with these people?