Directed By: Mario Van Peebles
Written By: Sy Richardson, Dario Scardapane
Produced By: Preston L. Holmes, Jim Steele
Cast: Mario Van Peebles, Melvin Van Peebles, Billy Zane, Stephen Baldwin
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 111 minutes
Review Date: July 16, 2010
Rent Blazing Saddles.
That’s the only conclusion you can reach after nearly two hours of awkward exposition, mediocre gunfights, and Rainbow Coalition-worthy social commentary. It’s not that Posse doesn’t have a noble goal at its heart. After decades of westerns, it’s time a film told the story of the Old West through the aches and troubles of the ethnic minorities — especially the black population — that helped build it from the ground up.
It’s just that Posse is not that film.
It aspires to be a two-fisted Wild Bunch doubling as revisionist history, but let’s not kid ourselves: This is a Van Peebles movie, including both father (Melvin) and son (Mario). That means extra helpings of violence, garish T ‘n’ A, and campy one-liners.
And that could work. Once Upon a Time in Sweet Sweetback’s West could very well be a western worth watching. It would certainly offer a curled lip to the traditional western. It might even have something relevant to say about how we view race in American history.
But Posse fails on all counts. Not only is it a fairly generic and boring action flick, it wastes a genuinely interesting concept by soaking every scene in camp. It often pays lip service to the notion of social commentary, but its messages are so throwaway that they might as well have focused on making a better western.
It centers on Jesse Lee (Mario Van Peebles), a black Man With No Name, and the eponymous posse he rode with. While fighting in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, they’re sent on a mission to steal weaponry from an enemy camp. But their diabolical commanding officer, Col. Graham (Billy Zane), is really sending them to recover a chest of gold, with plans to kill them and keep the treasure himself.
Lee and his men give Graham the slip, deserting the army and slowly making their way out west with the gold in tow. They take both the shortest and longest routes possible — travel montages in this movie are what power-training montages were to Rocky IV — with Col. Graham apparently taking extended leave from the war in order to pursue the posse with his men.
Billy Zane plays a human smirk in his role as Graham, puffing cigars and taking delirious joy in wielding his power. He’s one of the film’s perfect casting choices — the other belonging to 6’5” Tommy “Tiny” Lister, the menacing but bashful muscle in Lee’s posse.
But other than these two roles, few of the characters stand out. Van Peebles’ Lee is more stoic than mysterious, though he does have a tortured past. More specifically, you feel tortured watching endless flashbacks of his father’s death (in monochrome, of course).
And despite an epic ensemble cast, most of the talent is wasted on brief cameos. Melvin Van Peebles, Isaac Hayes, Pam Grier, Woody Strode, Paul Bartel, and Reginald VelJohnson (Carl Winslow!) are among the familiar faces that keep coming, but none of them stick around long enough to say much.
That would be excusable if at least there were a good yarn being told, but there’s nothing fit for the campfire here. Once they get the gold, the posse wanders aimlessly in scenes that are clearly intended to do nothing but pad the running-time. Want to see a montage of cowboys roughhousing in a lake? Ho ho! What tomfoolery! How about drunk cowboys horsing around in New Orleans? How about ill-defined characters dying off and never being mentioned again?
There are countless other minor faults in this flick — one of them involves a Skinemax-quality sex scene, complete with a frontier cabin adorned with candles — but there’s no need to dig much further. This six-shooter misfired.
Andrew Good is a film critic and writer living in San Diego.