I think a good part of my inexplicable fascination with rock stars in film roles is the fact that, more often than not, rock stars are incapable of shedding their persona for the purposes of the film. Someone like Mick Jagger has spent close to fifty years (Christ almighty) acting like some sort of walking embodiment of sex, Satanism and letting the good times roll (and in later years, of overstated mincing and mullet-like haircuts), so why should he suddenly drop the act that has essentially taken over his entire state of being? That’s why almost all of the good rock star performances are basically just a version of themselves (as in Jagger’s Performance). David Bowie is one of the only musician-turned-actors who has actually managed to shed the constraints of his stage persona on the silver screen, owing most probably to the fact that there has never been a ‘true’ Bowie persona for more than a few years at a time.
It’s true that his performance in The Man Who Fell to Earth isn’t far removed from his Ziggy Stardust stuff and his turn as Nikolai Tesla in The Prestige takes full advantage of his gnomish, kd lang-esque current incarnation but Bowie has nonetheless succeeded in delivering performances in films wherein he does more than simple affectless posturing. On the other hand, like 99% of musicians who turn to acting, his choice of roles has landed him in truly inexplicable places like a low-budget Canadian children’s film or going to Italy to make a western with Harvey Keitel.
That’s right. 15 years after Corrupt, Keitel once again spent his yearly Italian vacation gallivanting with a thin, pasty British rock star. That’s more or less where the similarities between Corrupt and Gunslinger’s Revenge end, however. By the mid-90’s, the glory days of Italian exploitation were pretty much over and the chances of Gunslinger’s Revenge being a balls-out insane spaghetti western scored by Morricone in which a sweaty, thickly-bearded Keitel tortures a Mexican revolutionary played David Bowie were extremely slim. From the moment you hear the opening lines coming out the mouth of an adorable child, Gunslinger’s Revenge suddenly starts looking a lot more Opie than van Cleef.
Opening with a title card that states ‘The West is where every child played cowboys and Indians’ (damn, you don’t say!), Gunslinger’s Revenge is narrated by a mush-mouthed little kid named Jeremiah. Jeremiah is the town scamp, skipping school to run around peeking on naked ladies and other such scamp-like pursuits with his best friend, a Dutch manchild in a top hat named Joshua (Jim van der Woude in a role that would have been perfectly suited to Ron Perlman). Jeremiah’s the son of a white man named Doc (Leonardo Pieraccioni) and fetching Indian lass named Pearl (Sandrine Holt). Doc is kind of the 1880’s version of a Woody Allen character, a peace-loving vegetarian who’s ill at ease with the general climate of killing that pervades the old west. He doesn’t even want to go hunting with his father-in-law despite the importance of the tradition. He runs around solving conflicts between the trigger-happy denizens of the village, convincing people not to shoot each other.
As you’ll probably gather, the instant introduction of a hippy-dippy nebbish and an adorable moppet as the main characters greatly reduces the probability of Peckinpah-like ballets of blood. That doesn’t automatically make the film a piece of shit, granted; there are plenty of great movies that feature children as protagonists without being aimed at children. Unfortunately, those are all pretty old movies. Despite all the permissiveness now present in cinema, there’s no fucking way that something like Night of the Hunter, a movie based entirely around children in peril, would ever be made today. Gunslinger’s Revenge takes that same approach of telling an adult story through a child’s perspective without really taking a stand on who the hell the kid is telling the story to or even why. The ever-present, cloyingly cutesy narration reaches Dexter-like levels of unnecessary repetition AND it does that through a small child who adorably cannot pronounce most syllables without tripping over his tongue.
We soon discover that Doc is such a peace-loving spoilsport because his father (Keitel) is the most notorious gunslinger in all of the West. Johnny’s been gone for twenty years to find that his wife has died and his son has gone and shacked up with an Indian, much to his dismay. Tired and disillusioned from a life of killing people, Johnny has decided to come and live out the twilight years of his life in the house he was born in despite what the law may think. Joshua sure is glad to have a new grandpa and play whatever frontier Montessori games his father has designed for him with the grizzled old coot. It looks like everything’s coming up roses in Western Backlot, USA!
There’s something pleasantly old-fashioned about the way the first half of Gunslinger’s Revenge unfolds, like it’s taking a page from the old live-action Disney films of the 60’s and 70’s (or, God forbid, one of the seemingly hundreds of family movies Dan Haggerty made after the demise of Grizzly Adams). From its generic ‘The West’ setting to the more-unsettling-than-it-should-be image of Keitel walking down the main strip with a small child on his shoulders, it brings back fuzzy memories of those halcyon days when there used to be a Family section at the video store (in fact, when there used to be such a thing as a video store) and I had not yet seen Harvey Keitel’s penis on more than one occasion. Swathed in generous amounts of cheesy score by that cheesiest of Italian composers, Pino Donnagio, and peopled with only the finest in freshly-scrubbed Italian outlaws, Gunslinger’s Revenge will be instantly familiar to anyone who remembers coming in on a rainy Sunday afternoon only to find some boring real-people shit on TV instead of cartoons. It’s kind of daring for a Disney movie (I don’t remember Dean Jones or Don Knotts using the word whore at all) but it dishes out the heartwarming lessons like the best of ‘em.
After Doc catches him teaching Jeremiah to shoot a gun, Doc decides to give up gunslinging forever. This proves to be a terrible idea as it coincides with the arrival of highly melodramatic gunslinger and Johnny’s mortal enemy Jack Sikora (Bowie) in town. Bowie’s entrance is the film is very much to his image: preceded by henchmen in the guise of a bald albino who meows, a female gunslinger clad entirely in black leather and what seems to be the West’s only Jamaican cowboy, a bearded and bespectacled Bowie enters the town’s smoke-filled saloon with a photographer snapping away at him with one of those old-fashioned tripod cameras. He saunters in slowly, accuses someone of shitting their pants and compulsively rings a little bell. Suddenly the film feels less like those aforementioned Disney movies and more like the world’s first Glam Western.
Until Bowie arrives, director Giovanni Veronesi doesn’t seem particularly interested in his own movie. The compositions are clean but unimpressive; everything from the score to the performances is functional but unimpressive. But when Bowie shows up with his hilarious Southern drawl (he’s inexplicably the only character in the movie that has an accent that isn’t Italian) and generously-feathered hat, the film takes on a whole new life. Every shot of Bowie tracks in dramatically; the conveniently-lit saloon suddenly becomes smoky and sinister. Sometimes I wonder how extremely famous people like Bowie get roped into starring in movies that will ostensibly be seen by less people than a single live show he’d perform; if Gunslinger’s Revenge is any indication, it’s because it fills the director with the spunk and vitality to actually want to make a movie. I mean, for fuck’s sake, this is an ostensible family movie where DAVID FUCKING BOWIE says ‘You’re lucky. I’m not gonna kill you. Today, I’m just gonna rape you.’ And then he does.
Sikora begins terrorizing the family through a rather tone-deaf guitar version of ‘Glory Hallelujah’ and breaks a guitar over Joshua’s head, prompting the townspeople to ask Doc to either fix the Sikora problem himself or ask Johnny to leave town. Meanwhile, Sikora is holed up in the saloon getting progressively crazier and hammier. He shoots the bartender when she approaches him with a knife, kidnaps the town schoolteacher and imposes himself as the new substitute teacher in order to kidnap the fuck out of Jeremiah. Gunslinger’s Revenge’s tone shifts brutally every ten minutes or so, but it’s particularly hard to reconcile the fact that a movie that opens with a quote about children playing cowboys and Indians would eventually have that same child tied up and gagged by a leather-clad assassin who regales him with the tale of how she is the product of a rape-turned-murder.
Despite this massively inconsistent tone (or maybe because of it), Gunslinger’s Revenge is leaps and bounds beyond what one would expect from a low-budget Western shot years and years after the genre had gone out of fashion. It’s fast-paced and entertaining and while the incessant moralizing about the importance of peace and family grows tedious when juxtaposed to bloody shootouts and Bowie’s bug-eyed Palance/Kinski freakout, it’s an hour-and-a-half of mildly entertaining western with a much higher body count than the aforementioned Disney westerns. And it ends with Keitel stoned out of his mind… and a fucking Western-themed rap song.
So why does it exist?
I think it’s got a lot to do with how the project was put together. Obviously, Keitel and Bowie were brought in to give the film international appeal but I’d like to know how much of the Bowie stuff was scripted and how much of it was his own doing. The entire third act of the film is a mind-blowing exercise in scenery chewing that could only have come from last minute tinkering. If Keitel was first, it might have been enough to get Bowie to sign on. If Bowie was first, offering Keitel an attractive paycheck would be a fantastic way to make sure that the movie isn’t just one of those weird rock star vehicles from the 80’s like Hearts of Fire that there was never any demand for. The lack of personality in the film’s first two thirds implies a kind of ‘let’s try making a Western, then, shall we? Nothing too dirty, of course.’ attitude that goes flying out the window once Bowie appears.
And, let’s face it: if this movie starred Harvey Keitel and, say, Dermot Mulroney in the Bowie part, it wouldn’t be on this website. If nothing else, the filmmakers have squandered a fantastic opportunity to turn this into a series wherein each instalment features a gunslinger from Keitel’s past finding him and wanting to kill him. All the gunslingers, of course, are played by aging rockstars. Pete Townshend as a one-eyed Mexican! Bruce Springsteen as the half-breed who lost his wife (Mary, of course) to Keitel’s antics! Lou Reed as the corrupt politico ousted from office when Keitel’s stray bullet revealed the depth of his corruption! The possibilities are pretty much endless, guys.