Fans of old-school westerns might seek out “Big Kill,” a homage to that declining species from Scott Martin, who wrote and directed the movie as well as starring in it (and serving as its co-editor, as well). They might even enjoy it as a harmless throwback to the days when oaters were a studio staple. In reality, though, it’s a turgid, overdrawn piece of macho blarney, much of it with a distinctly clunky feel—John Ford mimicked by inept wannabes. It joins the sole previous feature Martin has contrived in such an auteur capacity, a reviled 2012 World War II flick called “Battle Force.”
The plot focuses on the clichéd figure of the eastern tenderfoot who goes west and finds danger there. He’s Jim Andrews (Christoph Sanders), a widower from Philadelphia who’s ventured into Texas on his way to Arizona, where he hopes to join his brother (K.C. Clyde), the owner of a bar in the thriving mining town of Big Kill, Arizona. Along the way he bumps into a pair of saddle-tramp brothers, Jake and Travis Parker (Martin and Clint Hummel). They’re meant to have the charm of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: Jake’s an inveterate gambler, but a very poor one, while Parker is a compulsive womanizer whose dalliance with a girl in the movie’s prologue has gotten them run out of Mexico by her furious father, a fulminating general played in a virtual cameo by Danny Trejo.
Andrews persuades the duo to accompany him to Arizona as bodyguards, but once they reach Big Kill they find the mine closed and the nearly deserted town dominated by two villainous types—a fellow called Preacher (Jason Patric), who prefers to save and kill in one fell swoop, and a flamboyant gunslinger called Johnny Kane (Lou Diamond Phillips). Both are in the employ of the initially unseen mayor of the place, who owns the saloon presided over by a dominatrix called Felicia Stiletto (Stephanie Beran), but no one claims ever to have known anybody named Andrews. The only other business in town is a general store, whose genial proprietor tells them that the place is now a center for the redistribution of stolen cattle, an enterprise over which the mayor presides in cahoots with the rustlers.
Complications follow from this setup, but outlining them would serve little purpose. Suffice it to say that the screenplay meanders along piling up random incidents—a few killings by Preacher and Kane, Andrews’ romance with the daughter of the general store’s owner, the chance that the town could revive by becoming a railroad hub—before winding up in an excruciatingly protracted series of culminating showdowns in which the Parkers and Andrews must prove their mettle by facing off against Kane, Preacher and their scruffy band of followers. (One of the latter will turn on his employers out of a sense of honor: no points for guessing who it will be far in advance.) The confrontations are accompanied by a score aping Ennio Morricone from Kays Al-Atrakchi, which throughout has been pretty intrusive.
There’s some visual pleasure to be had from “Big Kill”: a few of the vistas have grandeur, and overall Mark Atkins’ widescreen camerawork is commendable. But the picture moves at a snail’s pace, collapsing only after exceeding the two hour mark; Martin, working in the editing room with Tim Tuchrello, was apparently much too reluctant to cut what he’d shot, and the combination of somnolent direction and overly permissive editing ultimately has a deadening effect. The behind-the-scenes crew have worked hard to give everything a proper period look, too, but the town and the costumes lack the weathered, beaten appearance they ought to have. Of course, in that they mirror those in a lot of the weaterns from the fifties and sixties that they’re copying.
As for the performances, Phillips is obviously having fun wearing brightly-colored suits and chewing the scenery, and Patric aims for a grimly seething mood that, frankly, makes one think of what Robert Mitchum could have done—did, in fact–with such a role. Martin and Hummel—who also took the leads in “Battle Force”—want to come across as jokey and laid-back, but instead strike you as desperately aiming for an easygoing Newman-Redford camaraderie that eludes them completely. The other performances are either barely competent or significantly less than that.
If all you’re looking for in a western is an amateurish attempt to recycle old Hollywood clichés, you might find “Big Kill” an amusing bit of nostalgia. But there have been other movies lately—“The Ballad of Lefty Brown” and “The Sisters Brothers” for starters—that have had much more success by tweaking the old formulas rather than just repeating them. Enthusiasm for the old genre isn’t enough, but it’s all Martin and his cohorts have to offer.