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Silverado Review

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by Chris McEneany Sep 7, 2009

    Silverado Review

    Well, folks, I spent a wonderful afternoon watching Lawrence Kasdan's lavish old school horse-opera, Silverado (1985), and Sam Raimi's exuberant and hyper-stylised salute to the gunfight, The Quick And The Dead (1997 - review for that one coming soon), and what aided this indulgent double-helping of six-shootin' mayhem was how both movies took the two separate and highly appreciated strands of the genre and paid maximum homage to them. So whilst Raimi's favoured the kaleidoscopic ultra violence and twisted psycho-drama of the Italian Spaghetti variant, Kasdan's is a determined throwback to the epic American Western. As such it is gloriously large-scale, unmistakably heroic and surging with frontier spirit and optimism. The good guys are implacably, almost obsessively good (“Now I don't wanna kill you ... and you don't wanna be dead.”) and the bad guys are toe-curlingly nasty, grizzled and black-hearted. They kidnap a child and we hear lots about their shooting of a dog - you know as well as I do that committing such deeds means they ain't gonna come out the other end of this in one piece. That's fer sure!

    Written by Lawrence Kasdan and his brother Mark (who also co-produced it), the scope of the film is huge, its breadth of characters, stories and episodes sprawling and wilfully indulgent. The Kasdans love the genre and, possibly thinking that they may never get another shot at making one, throw every time-honoured component from previous oaters into what would turn out to be a landmark Western - one that would prove not only to be much admired, critically, but go on to unbolt the stable door and let through a veritable stampede of similar big studio cowpoke sagas.

    “You know ... a good, smelly saloon ... my favourite place in the world.”

    Four disparate travellers cross paths with one another - each with an agenda of their own. But, fast becoming friends, they discover that they are bonded with the idea of reaching the distant town of Silverado. Scott Glenn's stoic gunfighter, Emmett, actually wants to go further west into California with his rebellious brother, Jake (Kevin Costner), providing the carefree young buck doesn't get them both strung up first. Reluctant drifter-with-a-past, Paden (Kevin Kline), wants to get his horse back - as well as the clothes - that rustlers stole from him. And Danny Glover's Mal Johnson initially wants a drink, a bed and a bath after ten days of hard riding - but he's got some family problems to take care of, too. Fortune and a shot for a fresh start, or redemption, if you will, are promised, but Silverado is going to make them earn such dreams the hard way. With jail-breaks, cross-country pursuits, familial tragedies, energetic gun-battles and treachery aplenty en route, the four will encounter the ghosts of the past and be forced to make a stand against tyranny and injustice. It's the Old West, and the boardwalks will rattle, gunshots will ring out, and bodies will tumble as old scores are settled and evil ousted. But, above all, the quintessential myth of the frontier will ride high in the saddle after the purest John Ford fashion. By his own admission, Kasdan wanted to make a Western for people who had never seen one before. So, to this end, he and his brother happily trot out everything that made the genre such an eternally cherished one and, in so doing, resurrected the American Western from the celluloid tumbleweed in which it had been lying abandoned for almost a decade. Clint Eastwood had revised opinions on what it took to ride the range and Sam Peckinpah had painted the West as elegiac, violent and sombre.

    Kasdan and co. just wanted to trail-blaze and raise a ruckus.

    “I hate to see any man swing ... it's bad luck.”

    “Bad luck for me ... 'cos now I gotta spring him. He's my brother.”

    The cast is terrific. Scott Glenn's oddly serious and detached manner gives his character of Emmett an enigmatic, steely-eyed air. A cold, often unemotional actor, Glenn is actually superb here. He allows a hint of playfulness to creep in now and again - love that little look of concern he shoots over his shoulder when Mal's bogus shots get too close for comfort during a spectacular ruse to outwit a gang of robbers - and he exudes an indefatigable determinism that would be bland in most heroes, but works well enough with his thousand-yard-stare. He also does extremely well in the frequent action scenes, possibly out-stunting the rest of his crew all put together with his ducking, diving, rolling and horseplay. He even gets to go through the typical Clint Eastwood staple of being taken almost to the brink of death and then, magically and spiritually resurrected, finding the strength to go back out and take the fight to the bad guys like an avenging angel. Danny Glover has a great time blasting away with a massive Henry repeating rifle. His opening scene, in a bigoted bar-room brawl, is splendid. The look on his face once he is finally able to down a much-deserved shot of whiskey is priceless. Only John Mills in the classic Ice Cold In Alex was able to make a slurp of alcohol look so, well, divine. His knack for appearing just in the nick of time becomes a trait as much as his “hold-the-high-ground” penchant for sniper-shooting, but Glover's reliable intensity - well-utilised whether he is playing a character with noble or malicious intent - brings some smouldering heartache to the part, as well.

    “Blind Pete always said you'd hang. I guess tomorrow at dawn he'll be proved right.”

    “Ten am.”

    “Oh ... I always thought they did it at dawn ...”

    Costner would, of course, go on to make the West his cinematic home with the subsequent Dances With Wolves, Wyatt Earp and Open Range tied up in his saddlebags, but as Emmett's cavalier younger brother he possibly goes a little bit too far in his character's free-spirited derring-do. I like Costner, I really do, but I have always had a problem with him acting young and boisterous. I just don't buy it. This sort of daft zaniness and totally unconvincing action-man gymnastics would reach its apex with Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves and Waterworld, but the slightly clumsy and embarrassing “tom-foolery” that would sink his characters in those two big budget clunkers would be sown here with Jake. Having said this, though, I do love his introductory scene - Jake climbing abstractedly all around his cell whilst being ironically "cagey" about the circumstances that put him there in the first place. Mind you, all of his horsing about and whooping it up play like a counterpoint to the deranged antics of Jeff Fahey's despicable Deputy Tyree, though, Kasdan finding opportunity to link the opposing sides in grimly ritualistic ways that set various characters off against one another come the inevitable showdown.

    The impossibly statuesque Jeff Goldblum has a neat little role as dandified gambler Calvin Stanhope - “but my mother called me Slick” - and even though the character is pretty much tacked-on and only used to allow a sense of poetic retribution to unfold later on, he provides some moments both of security and of unease as he sweeps into town with one eye on his cards, one on Mal's sister Rae and his hand never too far from that cunning knife inside his boot. Equally unnecessary other than as colloquial set-dressing is Rosanna Arquette as a hardy pioneer, Hannah, whom Paden takes a liking to. Arquette would go on to essay another strong-willed plainswoman when she took on the role of Libby Custer, the doomed General's wife, in the stunning TV mini-series, Son Of The Morning Star, but I feel that she makes little impact here, the subplot involving her tentative romance ultimately dropped from an already bulging screenplay. Much better value, and a devout scene-stealer, is the great Brian Dennehy as Silverado's nefarious Sheriff Cobb, a one-time associate of Paden's and the big obstacle standing squarely in the way of practically everyone in the film. But more on him later.

    “Hey Paden ... where's the dog?

    Mad-eyed Jeff Fahey is typically as volatile as a rattlesnake as Cobb's psychotic lieutenant, Tyree, and the exquisite Amanda Wyss, having presumably just recovered from her slicing and dicing encounter with Freddy Krueger in the first, and greatest, A Nightmare On Elm Street, as good time gal, Phoebe, adds another reason why it would worth visiting Silverado. Genre veteran and cult fave, Brion James, is gruffly great as a headstrong and impatient wagon-driving pioneer, but for some reason, in this film, he seems to bear an uncanny and slightly distracting similarity to our own Timothy Spall.

    “How do I know this is your horse?”

    “Can't you see this horse loves me?”

    But the two absolute stand-out roles go to Kevin Kline and the diminutive Linda Hunt, who had received an Oscar for her awesome supporting performance as Billy Kwan in Peter Weir's The Year Of Living Dangerously a couple of years before.

    Kline's Paden runs the gamut of comedy stooge, erstwhile confidante, loyal compadre and shrewd businessman. That he is also a crack shot doesn't go amiss, either. The actor makes Paden the only truly three-dimensional male character in the film, his sensitivity and charm making that gleam in his eye perfectly genuine. Funny, erudite and yet, when the situation calls for it, gravely considered, Kline is the most memorable out of this wild bunch. Whether stumbling around a dust-filled shanty-town in his long-johns, staring incredulously at John Cleese's unlikely Sheriff Langston in the “swinging” town of Turley, or striding down the main street in Silverado with righteous vengeance on his mind, Kline sucks the marrow out of the role, going against type but nailing every scene. Hunt, on the other hand, makes up for her slight frame with a set-in-stone characterisation of frontier spit and salubrious brio as saloon manageress, Stella. That she and Kline's Paden strike up an immediate rapport makes perfect sense and their relationship, although barely making up any screen-time, forms one of the film's closest and most solid foundations. Hunt and Kline get on so well together that they don't even need to speak - although their dialogue is actually well-written and delivered, they could just sit, swigging back the good stuff and letting the eloquence of their combined moods and demeanour speak for them. And this is just more evidence of how such an ostensibly simple and clichéd movie can raise the bar, meeting all expectations and then pitching in elements that just come out of left-field, yet blending them all seamlessly.

    “It all worked out in the end. I went to jail - and the dog sprung me.”

    Kasdan's modern classic travels along the age-old Western trail, plot-wise, but adheres to the much fresher, and more authentic style of imagery. The New Mexico setting is obviously beset with raw winds sweeping down off the mountains, and the characters are suitably attired with long dusters, many layers of clothing and have a realistically rugged appearance. Silverado certainly isn't the most glamorous looking movie. But this all makes for a more convincing backdrop. As with most production-built towns, Silverado, itself, has moments of looking like a set, but there is a strangely “lived-in” quality to it, as well. Kasdan also shows us the town from a distance, something that a lot of Westerns just don't do because of the mocked-up façades and lack of actual construction that has gone into them. Again, this serves the film well by placing us believably and objectively in the story. We have a sense of the geometry and of the distance involved in getting from A to B, things that were normally taken for granted in the genre in all but the classics, such as The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch or the Dollars Trilogy. Silverado feels, at least, as big as any of those illustrious forebears.

    “Right, let's talk about you chaps. I'm Sheriff John Langston. As you may have gathered I'm not from around these parts ...”

    “You're kidding?”

    The historical and cultural relevance of the times is also keenly adhered to. It may be commonplace to have a corrupt Sheriff as the big villain - Gene Hackman has actually done this twice now, in Unforgiven and The Quick And The Dead - but the fact is that many upholders of the law had once ridden in gangs, themselves, as Dennehy's likeably sinister Cobb confesses. The frontier was, indeed, a land of opportunity and lifestyles and professions could be radically swapped almost on a whim. Of course, trading a robber's mask for a tin star could just as easily be seen as a chance to legitimise villainy on a much grander scale, so Cobb's underhanded and occasionally vicious control over Silverado has that ring of truth to it. Dennehy is magnificent in the role, too. He should be, of course. Like Hackman, he too has been the sly, treacherous face of an arrogant authority figure before, when he played the arrogant hick-town cop, Teasle, in First Blood. But the gruff, barrel-chested bear of a man, his bulk accentuated all the more by a colossal sheepskin overcoat, wields power in this town with a self-centred aura of palpable charm at the same time. It is clear that nobody trusts him and they treat him with respect only out of fear, but there is also the impression that Cobb would actually like to have some real friends around him too. Perhaps he truly does miss the good old days of frontier raids and a life in the saddle. When Paden shows up, there is a definite sincerity to Cobb's desire to have him as a buddy again, although this is still tempered by the fact that it would have to be on Cobb's own, string-pulling terms. Cobb, to be fair, is just a big child, prone to bullying and quick to show-off. It is clear that he resents Paden even having other friends and you know that he would rather have the more understanding and far less volatile ex-partner by his side than the irrational and unpredictable Tyree, so perhaps it is this more intelligent and independent presence that draws him in and, ultimately, proves to be his undoing. Dennehy would break his own mould shortly after this and go on to play good guys - the benign alien in Cocoon, the dogged detective in FX - but his skill will always lie in humanising villains to the point where we can almost sympathise with them, no matter what their crimes.

    “All I wanted was a drink and a bed ... guess I came to the wrong place.”

    “Came to the wrong town. I don't tolerate this kind of thing, it's hard on the peace and it's hard on the furniture.”

    Sheriff John Cleese lays down the law ... but the limits of his jurisdiction tend to change according to the accuracy of whoever is shooting at him.

    But Silverado is best and most fondly recalled by most for its giddy action sequences that take all the old staples of the genre and reinvigorate them with gusto. Emmett's opening shoot-out, the barn he is hiding in surrounded by enemies who seem to be crawling all over it, his room-weaving and window-crashing in the thunderous rescue mission and, best of all, his amazing mounted cat-and-mouse chase through Silverado with Ray Baker's sly Ethan McKendrick in hot pursuit, both of them riding up and down alleyways and blasting merrily away at one another at high speed - it's like Starsky And Hutch on horseback. Jake's glorious two-gun, side-shooting double execution is a sure-fire crowd-pleaser, too. And then there's the big stampede that acts like the 7th Cavalry coming over the hill to the rescue - not that the 7th Cavalry were ever actually able to rescue anybody, including themselves, but you know what I mean. Kasdan's later epic Wyatt Earp, featuring a much more reined-in Costner in the title role, would eschew much of this brevity and set-piece mayhem in favour of intricate character building and spot-on period mood, but his flair for pulse-pounding gunfights and chest-beating heroics is perfectly captured here in the bullet-riddled Silverado.

    “Well, you better calm down, Paden. Everything will be put straight in a few days.”

    “Yeah ... I saw how you put Mel Johnson straight.”

    Bruce Broughton's epic score is another golden nugget that the film can lay claim to. Harking back to the lavish and rousing fanfares of Elmer Bernstein, Max Steiner and Alfred Newman much more so than the darker, more brutish yet curiously more lyrical themes of Jerry Fielding or Morricone, Broughton's music is rip-roaring, broad in colour and typical of the Golden Age mix of Broadway and Hollywood, influenced greatly by Jerome Moss' flamboyant and trendsetting score for the highly influential The Big Country. Individual themes are woven, collide in conflict and become all parts of an unabashed fanfare that went on to become, for a time at least, synonymous with sporting events, news broadcasts and any other circumstance when an American flag could be waved with patriotic fervour. Broughton would go on to compose for the equally fun and traditional oater, Tombstone, in 1993, a time when the Wild West was once again flavour of the month, with Kasdan's own sprawling Wyatt Earp strutting into town as well, but that score was like Silverado's darker cousin, more brooding and intense. Together, though, Broughton's Western scores are triumphs in a genre that, arguably, contains some of the most exciting film-music ever composed.

    Silverado was a remarkable success theatrically, and has always been a much-admired picture. Whilst strictly conventional in storytelling terms - very obviously good and upright folk being plagued and terrorised by the corrupt and the unjust, until heroic drifters arrive to clean the town up is hardly anything revelatory - the Kasdans are able to throw in comedy, powerful characters and even a slight sense of surrealism with the still odd appearance of John Cleese. At times the film feels languid and almost soap-opera-ish, and at others, dangerously exhilarating and intense. But this is the ebb and flow of a narrative that is determined to meet all of its ambitions head-on. Highly episodic and coming close to being over-crammed with larger-than-life characters it may be, but there are few more satisfying Westerns than this.

    “Well, let's go - he ain't hittin nuthin'!”

    “You idiot - he's hit everything he's aimed at!”

    Hollywood's fascination for the Old West may fade in and out of vogue, but it will never, ever lay down and die in the dust. We have the mythical, the grand, the iconic and the revisionist takes on the genre, but Lawrence Kasdan's vigorous ensemble-piece beckoned a true return to form for the much-loved cowboy picture and, no doubt, helped pave the way for other American period epics such as Glory, Young Guns and Lonesome Dove, that came along soon afterwards. It contained all the vital ingredients that audiences wanted, but was also unafraid to mix the tone up a bit and introduce some peculiar traits into such traditional and largely stereotypical characters. Silverado remains thoroughly top drawer entertainment. Exciting, fresh and highly amusing, it saddles up for a nostalgic tribute to the prairie-tales of old and delivers on all counts. Plus you've got John Cleese playing a sheriff - and you thought that it was the Italians who took liberties with the Old West!

    Winning its spurs, its silver star and a strong 9 out of 10, Silverado comes very highly recommended indeed.