Producers: R. Bryan Wright, Micah Haley, Sasha Yelaun, Robert Paschall, Jr. and Brett Donowho Director: Brett Donowho Screenplay: Carl W. Lucas Cast: Nicolas Cage, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Noah Le Gros, Clint Howard, Abraham Benrubi, Kerry Knuppe, Boyd Kestner, Adam Lazarre-White, Corby Griesenbeck, Everett Blunck, Nick Searcy and Shiloh Fernandez Distributor: Saban Films
All screenplays have bits and pieces reminiscent of other films, but in this case the writer, Carl W. Lucas, has engaged in something very close to adulation. That “The Old Way”—a very appropriate title, given the circumstances—is a revenge western (twice over, no less) makes it part of a line of horse operas that has existed since the silent days. But in particular it’s a mash-up of two modern near-classics, “Unforgiven” and “True Grit.” And for good measure at the close Lucas throws in a nod to a third, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”
Many of the actors are looking backward, too. Nicolas Cage seems to be trying to channel Clint Eastwood. Nick Searcy comes about as close to Ben Johnson as one can get without being charged with larceny. And Clint Howard—well, it’s rather fun to see him do his imitation of Gabby Hayes. Or is it supposed to be Strother Martin?
In any event, the story opens with a prologue in which Cage, as mean, invincible gunfighter Colton Briggs, shoots a bunch of people at a botched hanging before collecting his fee—and more—from one of the dead. Among those left standing is young Jimmy McAllister (Everett Blunck), a scrawny, terrified kid who’s just watched Colton gun down his father and uncle (Corby Griesenbeck and Boyd Kestner) before putting the boy himself in his six-shooter’s sights and then riding off.
Twenty years later Briggs, his handlebar mustache gone, is a straight-laced, suited shopkeeper in a small town with a hard-working wife named Ruth (Kerry Knuppe) and an adolescent daughter named Brooke (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), whom he treats with stilted sternness. He walks the girl to school one morning, leaving Ruth back at the homestead, and in their absence the house is invaded by the grown-up James (Noah Le Gros) and his crew of outlaws, which includes grizzled Howard, dapper Shiloh Fernandez and crusty Abraham Benrubi. By the time Colton and Brooke return, their place has been occupied by Marshal Jarret (Searcy) and his posse, who are pursuing McAllister. The lawman informs them that Ruth was murdered by James, an act of vengeance against the man who’d killed his father years before.
Now Colton takes up the gun he’d set aside for Ruth again to chase down McAllister and take his revenge, despite Jarret’s admonition to let the law handle the crime. Ignoring that warning, Briggs mounts up to do the job himself, with Brooke at his side. The two will bond over the course of the journey, which will wind up, after another meeting with Jarret, at a dusty town for a final game of cat-and-mouse and, of course, a showdown that takes some unexpected twists.
The picture looks fairly good, thanks to the Montana locations, Sion Michel’s widescreen cinematography, the spare but period-correct production design by Tessla Hastings, and Vicki Hales’s costumes. And Andrew Morgan Smith’s score satisfactorily mimics the tropes of those in great Westerns of yore.
But the script is so shamelessly derivative that even the reasonably effective visuals make little impression, especially since the rhythms chosen by director Brett Donowho and editor Frederick Wardell are so solemn that the result often seems a series of stilted tableaux. There are some action moments—Ruth’s brutalization, an ambush in a valley, the final shoot-out—but even they’re staged in ploddingly arty fashion. One might get some modest satisfaction from watching the actors go through their paces, but the performances are terribly affected, with Cage monotonously monochromatic in super-restrained mode, Le Gross smiling malevolently as the sneering villain, and Searcy tiresomely avuncular as the world-weary marshal, delivering their monologues so slowly that the pauses between the phrases seem endless, as if the dialogue were a series of nuggets to be savored. It isn’t. Armstrong never rises above the amateurish, while the others barely cause a ripple—save for Howard, whose comic relief bits have a tinge of vaudeville about them. Donowho permits himself a brief cameo as a cavalry officer, yet another director following Hitchcock’s example while falling leagues short of his mastery.
“The Old Way” may find favor with devotees of the B-movie westerns of the fifties. But if you check them out on the GRIT Network, you’ll find that most are far more engaging than this enervating slog through Western clichés, which a somnolent Cage doesn’t even bother trying to energize.