A gunslinger runs afoul of the code of the old . . . north? And gets shot down by Aristotle.
A lone cowboy rides into town in a cloud of dust and a hearty . . . hey, what’s that smell? His hands are tied and he’s trailing a rope with a dead tree limb on the end. He looks like he’s been dragged over cactus face down and he’s leaking blood from some obscure wound.
Barclay’s Brush is a tiny Canadian town at the foothills of the Rockies. The first “desperado” he encounters is a savvy little Asian girl (Melody Choi) who stands and stares at this phenomenon. Looking at her through dazed, bleary eyes, he asks, “You speak-y English–y?” “Do you?” she shoots back. Round one goes to the real kid in pigtails.
This is the first of the “showdowns” that the notorious Montana Kid (Paul Gross) encounters in this delightful spoof of the code of the Old West — Canadian style. But even half dead, the Kid (a little mature for the pseudonym) is hell-bent on carrying out “the code” to the letter of its own law. Because that’s what a real man does. He don’t take no pig slop from nobody. Except maybe those blundering bounty hopefuls who kept him in a pig sty for several days before trying to hang him from a dead tree branch.
The next showdown comes when he walks into the dry goods store to get some bullets and runs into double trouble in the form of two feuding proprietors. One offers him a cup of tea complete with delicate cup and saucer while informing him they do not sell ammunition. The other comes out of the back saying they don’t sell spirits and spills cartridges on the counter, setting off a non-stop verbal barrage.
All this, together with the rather unflattering picture of Queen Victoria on the wall (which pops the Kid unpleasantly right between the eyes), gives our gunslinger a feeling of unreality, which is . . . uh, disarming? So he defends himself by shooting the offending teacup out of the proprietor’s hand and putting a bullet right between the eyes of the unfortunate queen, who the Kid thinks is the other man’s homely mother. We might call this showdown a draw.
The next offense which sets him off is the disappearance of his beloved horse and companion when he walks out of the store. Turns out the animal was taken by Jack the blacksmith (Tyler Mane) to his shop nearby. Noticing the horse was in bad shape, Jack had taken it to care for its injured hooves. But to the prickly Kid, the man had stolen his horse and, gun in hand, belligerently confronts the huge towering smith. Jack just keeps on working and quietly tells him he needs to rein in his temper, which sets the gunslinger off even more. Trying to get the smith to notice that he is being challenged by a very dangerous character, the cowboy steps in front of the big guy, who simply picks up the smaller man and sets him out of the way. Like a banty rooster in full flog, the offended bad guy goes ballistic, which prompts the smith to call him a “common” killer.
“What did you call me?” the killer asks in his deadliest voice.
“Killer?” says Jack.
“No. Before that,” replies the Kid.
“Common,” says Jack.
“Yeah. That’s it. I’m calling you out.”
The next we see of the gunslinger he is being thrown bodily out the door still screaming, “I’m calling you out,” which, according to “the code” must be answered and satisfied if you call yourself a man. The door stays shut. The Kid stands staring at it in a slightly bewildered, snake-eyed, wide-legged stance, limbering his fingers as they hover about his holster. He is still screaming his challenge as a woman, with business at the blacksmith shop, walks nonchalantly around him like it’s just another day in paradise. “Who ARE these people,” the Kid keeps asking of no one in particular, as blood-loss finally sends him crashing face down into the dust. That round goes to the gentle giant.
The Kid’s bullet in the butt is forthwith surgically removed by Dr. Angus Schiffron (Jay Brazeau), who operates gratis on his gluteus. (A man’s first bullet in the rear is always removed for free — after that, it’s cash on the barrel head). And cuts up the only pants the Kid owns.
Every move he makes in this non-violent town just seems to add insult to injury. And no one will give him satisfaction. The smith won’t answer his challenge because he doesn’t own a gun — at least not a pistol. Those are not tools like rifles and shotguns. Pistols are made for killing people. The Kid is so obsessed with getting the smith to “throw down” on him, he sets out to get him the right kind of gun at his own expense.
The only one who owns such a weapon is widow Jane Taylor (Sienna Guillery), and it’s broken. However, she makes the Kid (whose real name turns out to be Sean Rafferty), work to pay for the gun by helping her build a windmill on her farm. During his down time in an old dirt shack, he sets about repairing the broken object, unaware that the brokenness within himself is also slowly being repaired.
The townspeople (and, of course, Jane) seem to welcome Sean with open arms, like a celebrity from the American West. He’s invited to dinner, and a dance, and a social. But the social turns out to be a gathering in the schoolhouse for adults to learn some of the finer points of life — philosophy Aristotle style is the subject. The pretty, young teacher explains Aristotle’s philosophy that what a person does over and over is what he is. Just like the young man who farms over and over. He’s a farm-er. She teaches day after day. So she is a teach-er. Which means, says blacksmith Jack, that someone who kills repeatedly is a kill-er. Just a common killer. Which sets Sean off again as the word “common” is as offensive to him as a red flag to a bull. But big Jack also proves the truth of the philosophy by welding the broken hammer on Jane’s gun, even though that gun will precipitate the final showdown between him and The Montana Kid. Because he’s a smith. That’s what he does. That’s who he is.
The notches on the town walls keep adding up as the Kid’s inner image of what makes a man is repeatedly shot down. The foundations on which he has based his life is seen to be full of holes, and this eventually allows his own walls to crumble so he can see the world in the light of everyday reality. The change of name from “The Montana Kid” to simply “Sean” is the high-water mark between his old life and image, and the softer man who is ready to live like a man. (Though he accuses his horse of being to one to “go soft”).
Ben Cutler, played by Callum Keith Rennie
Of course, there is a real showdown at the end with the entrance of the bounty hunters who are after him. The leader, Ben Cutler ((Callum Keith Rennie) has an extra incentive — revenge. The Montana Kid was the one who shot off his ear and disfigured him. The question is, can the townsfolk finally “kill” The Montana Kid so that Sean Rafferty might live? And who’s to save the man himself from the vengeful Cutler?
* * *
I think “Gunless” got a bad rap from the critics. The movie itself was funny, unpretentious, simple, and enjoyable. Its main character grew, which is more than I can say for most of the trash that gets the spotlight these days. (I can hear you now saying, “Okay, Smith, don’t hold back; tell us what you really think”.) Snicker if you will, I’ve more to say. “Gunless” has been held up against “Unforgiven” and “Blazing Saddles”. Well, this ain’t them, Jack. I doubt it ever pretended to be. It’s like comparing apples and oranges; though, as Pat Sajak once sagely said, “They’re both fruit”. Well, that’s the only comparison I can make. They’re both movies. And there the comparison should end.
Then there are the reviewers who think the townspeople and others were “cardboard characters”. I beg to differ for this reason. I cared about them. I loved the young and eager Royal Canadian Mountie, Corporal Jonathan Kent (Dustin Milligan), who, though longing to shine for a certain lady, was at once magnanimous and noble to his rival, setting a standard few of any age could duplicate. Yet, there was steel in this bumbling young man’s backbone, and authority rested well on his shoulders, as one scene showed very well.
Dustin Milligan as Corporal Jonathan Kent, Graham Greene as K’wala
And, of course, I loved the old Indian, N’Kwala (Graham Greene), who played nursemaid (uh, aide) for Corporal Kent. I love Graham Greene no matter what he plays in and wish he had more and bigger roles.
I even loved the old doctor and the funny little guys who were “dying” to see a real gunfight, and their wives who kept romanticizing “dueling”, until they were given a graphic description of the outcome.
I loved Jane, the feminine but tough little farm lady who led The Montana Kid down the path of no return with her funny, savvy ways — and without shoving cleavage to the forefront, or “walking like a man”. Remember her in “Eragon”?
Tyler Mane – the gentle giant blacksmith
And who could not love Jack, the gentle giant and blacksmith, played by Tyler Mane, and quite a departure for the 6’8″ ex-wrestler who once scared us witless as Michael Myers in Halloween, Sabretooth in X-Men, and Ajax in Troy.
Paul Gross – The Montana Kid
And, of course, I loved Paul Gross, The Montana Kid. I kept thinking I knew that guy. And sure enough, when I looked him up he was the main character in the old TV series “Due South”, playing the Canadian Mountie. I loved that show and it didn’t last long enough. My sister Katie says it’s the kiss of death for our families to start watching something. If it’s funny and has good characters played by good actors it’s history. Yeah, maybe Paul Gross isn’t Canada’s answer to Richard Burton. Sooooo what. He’s good enough to entertain and bring enjoyment to his viewing audience. And that’s good enough.
So, even though I can do egghead with the best of ’em, there are times when you should just enjoy something for what it is. Leave the highbrow back in the penthouse sometimes and, for Pete’s sake, just chill out.
P.S. I don’t recommend watching the out-takes on this one. They are crass, crude, and jarring, and unworthy of the movie I enjoyed.