Americans love Westerns – just three years ago James Mangold’s 3:10 To Yuma scored a respectful $70 million at the US box office, while bringing in a significantly smaller $16 mil worldwide. Something about the Western as a genre appeals to the American moviegoer – maybe it’s the concept of righteousness, of tough guys standing up for what they believe in. While the 90s and the 00s saw a rise in deconstructionist westerns like Unforgiven and the grievously underrated The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, pulling the myth apart is still not quite gravy with most moviegoers, as evidenced by Jesse James middling box office profits.
With digital cinema having almost entirely replace film as a choice of most productions, it’s understandable that novice filmmakers would turn to low cost, high quality cameras in an effort to curb development costs. Now we come to the root of the problem – the Western is not a genre that looks good on digital – plain and simple, the exact grain of film that I feel is very difficult to reproduce, does not work with period pieces, such as Michael Mann’s Public Enemies. Another thing Westerns require is an authentic-looking set and many low-budget filmmakers are apparently either not willing or unable to afford genuine-looking surroundings. This explains the current flood of straight to video, low budget poor-to-mediocre Westerns dumped on the shelves. Most of the work seemingly goes into cutting together an action packed trailer that belies the actual premise (Gunfight At La Mesa is guilty of this, feel free to compare the trailer to the actual film if you still feel compelled after this review) and putting together a titillating and misleading DVD cover.
Chris Fickley, who directed this film, has one other credit on IMDB: La Mesa, a film featuring much of the same cast but curiously missing the running time. The end credits of Gunfight At La Mesa bear the title La Mesa, so go figure. Gunfight At La Mesa is a curious animal – a clearly below-average film that continuously strives to be something better. The script, by director Fickley and actor Walker Haynes (who plays one of the leads, the white/Cherokee Tate Noble, and also served as a stunt coordinator, producer and editor), has all the right elements – the hard-worn themes of vengeance and nobility, of right and might and of course of redemption from violence and the past.
Gunfight At La Mesa is the story of Tate Noble, whose parents were killed under mysterious circumstances. Returning to the town of La Mesa, Arizona, he encounters former childhood friend Sheriff Samuel (Dan Braun). Tate is on a mission to find out who killed his parents and the two men begin to unravel the mystery of the murders and the town’s underbelly. It leads them to Harcourt Simms (Bruce Ladd), a slick and wealthy man who wields significant power. In the meantime, there are love interests in store for the men, a conflict between Samuel and his father and very, very little action.
Gunfight At La Mesa is a drawn out film that works best in small moments where the admittedly subpar acting and lacking cinematograpy come together. There are some engaging landscape shots and most of the camera moves are adequate but overall, the film cannot get past its homegrown roots. It just does not look in any way reflective of the time period when it takes place, in this case 1936. Everything seems to be an effort to make the modern look aged and it falls flat and takes you out of the film one too many times. Its easy to let Gunfight At La Mesa run in the background and I found myself pulling back to the film a number of times – not a good sign.
It’s easy to be cynical when a film is difficult to watch and lacks much of the shine of bigger budget productions. Gunfight At La Mesa avoids many pitfalls that spoil countless fan-made Westerns like The Showdown (yes I’m plugging one of my old reviews, but I think if you read both you’ll have a better idea of what I mean), but it is not a downright bad film, just one that can’t quite afford what its trying to do. Perhaps Mr. Fickley will have a chance to work with a bigger budget next time – he has a steady directing hand and guides his actors to reasonably laugh-free performances. The film, however, is just not very compelling to watch – if you’re a die-hard Western junkie, get your fix, but otherwise, just pass it by.
DVD Bonus Features
A 30 minute behind the scenes look with interviews from most of the cast and some of crew forms the crux of the special features. The interviewees are earnest and honest and it is a very good feature that you would not find on many other low budget films. Also included is the extremely misleading trailer (which you can also see on Youtube), 3 minutes of cute outtakes and a collection of other trailers from Lionsgate, who distributed the film.
"Gunfight At La Mesa" is on sale May 18, 2010 and is rated PG13. Drama, Western. Directed by Chris Fickley. Written by Chris Fickley, Walker Haynes. Starring Bruce Ladd, Dan Braun, Walker Haynes.