Directed By: Simon Wincer
Written By: John Hill
Produced By: Stanley O'Toole, Alexandra Rose
Cast: Tom Selleck, Laura San Giacomo, Alan Rickman
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 119 minutes
Review Date: July 16, 2010
In the ’80s, the U.S. experienced a short-lived fascination with Australian culture. I chronicle this fleeting obsession in detail in my 3500-page nonfiction book Why the ’80s Should Hold Nostalgia for No One: Essays on Unpopular Culture. Quigley Down Under came at the tail-end of this cultural shockwave, right around the time Americans started to pay attention to Australia’s dark side and lost interest in the country. A well-made if unexceptional western, the film doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it does tweak the conventions just enough to remain compelling and avoid the most obvious clichés of the genre.
The story revolves around Matt Quigley (Tom Selleck), an American sharpshooter who arrives in Australia to work for Marston (Alan Rickman). Immediately after his arrival, he encounters Crazy Cora (Laura San Giacomo) being forced onto a wagon to work as a prostitute for Marston. When Quigley discovers Marston has hired him to kill the aborigines on his land (“They always manage to remain just out of rifle range,” he laments), he reacts by tossing his new employer through a glass door. Not surprisingly, Marston has his men take Quigley and Cora (who is convinced Quigley is her husband, Roy) out into the desert to kill them. That Quigley manages to escape from certain death and rescue Cora comes as no surprise.
The remainder of the story focuses mainly on developing the difficult relationship between Quigley and Cora. This is the film’s major strength, as it allows Quigley to have more depth than the traditional taciturn outlaw, and it allows Cora to become one of the western genre’s great female characters, on par with Jill McBain from Once Upon a Time in the West or, I don’t know, Cat Ballou. When finally revealed, her backstory is heartbreaking, and the way it shapes her current actions (including mental illness that may or may not be affected to keep others at a distance) makes the development of her relationship with Quigley a treat to watch.
The battle of wits between Quigley and Marston is almost relegated to “subplot” status, but that’s okay because it’s a little disappointing. Selleck and Rickman both do fine work in their roles, but the screenplay has them separated for nearly the entire film, which makes their mutual disdain less than palpable. Marston’s only solution to the Quigley problem is sending more men after him. Considering the ease with which Quigley keeps killing his men, it seems like Marston would think outside the box a little. Nevertheless, the final showdown — which, true to Marston’s wide-eyed obsession with American cowboys, echoes the quick-draw cliché of many westerns — is satisfying.
Director Simon Wincer does a great job showing off his native Australia. Despite the story’s somewhat unsavory, anti-Aussie bent, he makes every shot look like an inviting, panoramic postcard. Although he does a fine job with the banter-laden romantic scenes between Quigley and Cora, Wincer struggles — as I imagine any director would — to make the action sequences truly exciting. When the protagonist’s main method of dispatching the bad guys consists of shooting at them from great distances, there’s only so much he can do to make it a thrill-ride. Luckily, the story focuses more on the romance than the action, so these awkwardly orchestrated sequences pass by quickly enough to continue enjoying the movie.
All in all, Quigley Down Under is not a perfect movie. The hero hides behind rocks and shoots at people from ¾ of a mile away, the villain is marginalized throughout most of the second act, and the direction is competent but uninspired — yet the performances and the presence of Crazy Cora make up for the movie’s other flaws. It’s a fun, consistently engaging neo-western.
D. B. Bates is a freelance script reader and writer.