How Dare a Nicolas Cage Western Movie Be So Boring
Nicolas Cage reportedly walked off the set of The Old Way after head armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed—the woman at the center of the fatal Rust shooting that took the life of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins—twice fired a gun without warning near cast and crew members, compelling the Oscar-winning actor to scream, “Make an announcement, you just blew
Nicolas Cage reportedly walked off the set of The Old Way after head armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed—the woman at the center of the fatal Rust shooting that took the life of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins—twice fired a gun without warning near cast and crew members, compelling the Oscar-winning actor to scream, “Make an announcement, you just blew my fucking eardrums out!”
That foreboding 2021 incident, it turns out, is the most notable element of Brett Donowho’s Western, which otherwise sticks to formula with a rigorousness that’s downright enervating. Consider it a bump in the road of Cage’s long-overdue return-to-the-mainstream resurgence.
Coming on the heels of his excellent turns in Pig and The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, The Old Way (which hits theaters Jan. 6 and VOD Jan. 13) is a B-movie that’s so chintzy and clichéd, it feels like it was mounted as a tax write-off for its producers.
Cage has always been too good for such bargain-bin endeavors, and he’s certainly the sole reason to spend 96 minutes on this journey. An oater that borrows from True Grit, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Outlaw Josey Wales and approximately 50 other genre predecessors (right up to John Wick, in fact), it’s a film with no originality and even less grace. All it has going for it is Cage’s rather impressive commitment to his archetypal role as a reformed badass forced to resume killing in service of vengeance—and, in doing so, to become the very sort of father his daughter needs.
Cage is Colton Briggs, who is introduced overseeing the hanging of a man by a mercantile store owner who claims he’s been robbed. A geriatric shootout between what appears to be cardboard cut-outs masquerading as actual living, breathing humans ensues. Just about everyone dies except Colton, whose handlebar mustache is almost as amusingly imposing as his steely-eyed glares. When the dust settles, Colton is ready to depart unscathed and with the money he was owed for this mercenary-bodyguard job, at which point the spared-from-hanging man attempts to kill him, forcing Colton to take his life. This occurs in front of the guy’s young son, whom the gunslinger stares down but stupidly leaves alive—thus instilling in the kid a burning desire for revenge.
Twenty years later, Colton is a clean-shaven businessman with a doting wife named Ruth (Kerry Knuppe) and a stern daughter named Brooke (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) whose severity causes her to butt heads with her dad—even though it also marks her as a chip off the old homicidal block. Alas, Colton’s happy domesticity isn’t to be. On the day that Ruth compels him to walk Brooke to school, Colton discovers that the girl’s teacher is sick, and thus instead takes her to his store, where she successfully dissuades a customer from stealing jelly beans with one cold-as-ice look.
Back at the ranch, Ruth is having an even tougher time, since that little angry boy has grown up to be fearsome bandit James McAllister (Noah Le Gros), and with his posse in tow, he’s shown up to get some payback against Colton for slaying his pops decades earlier.
In a twist that everyone will see coming, James and his personality-free crew—Boots (Shiloh Fernandez), Big Mike (Abraham Benrubi) and Eustice (Clint Howard)—murder Ruth, albeit not before she warns them with a knowing cackle, “You boys have woke the devil!” While this is “a new age” in which men pay attention to their kids and outlaws have transformed into respectable members of society, Colton takes this assassination badly, immediately reverting to his former self—hence the movie’s title!
Moreover, he opts to take his daughter with him on his quest for retribution, given that she’s a dispassionate robot just like him, as she proves to Marshall Jarret (Justified’s Nick Searcy) when he explains what’s happened to her mother—in a conversation that’s about as inappropriate as they come—and the adolescent girl doesn’t shed a tear.
The Old Way imagines Colton and Brooke’s kindred sociopathy as a good thing because it’s what makes them such formidable killers. That’s the only thought in the film’s head as it plods along from one exposition-heavy scene to the next, indulging in era-inapt profanity and staging much of its action on sets that are as rickety and unconvincing as Carl W. Lucas’ script.
The entire affair has the air of an anachronistic cosplaying lark, with Clint Howard generating some mild amusement from his semi-enthusiastic Walter Brennan riff. Le Gros sneers and leers with gusto but he doesn’t get a single interesting thing to do. Armstrong at least receives one moment to shine opposite Cage—pitifully mimicking tearful wails in order to lure an adversary into a trap – although she’s generally as stiff as the rest of the proceedings.
Cage glowers with haunted fury, explaining to his daughter at a campfire that he never felt (or, consequently, understood) fear until he met Ruth, and going about his executioner’s duty with methodical efficiency. The Old Way moves at a glacial pace that’s exacerbated by its decision to have characters tell the audience every single (obvious) thing they need to know about these individuals and their predicaments.
Consequently, there’s nothing resembling a suspenseful face-off; its shootouts are of a 1950s TV variety, full of clunky edits, wooden performances and a score desperate to suggest excitement. Every step along this path has been worn into the ground by the boots of better predecessors, rendering the film a pantomime fit for those who’ve never previously seen a Western.
Cage’s magnetism carries The Old Way to the finish line, but it’s not enough to lend the material any real electricity. Faithfully embodying Colton as a man of few words and even fewer emotions, the actor wisely eschews grand affectations. Yet the film is so devoid of energy that it’s not long before one begins pining for a bit of out-of-place craziness.
Embellished with panoramas of setting suns and rolling hills that wouldn’t pass muster on Yellowstone, much less in a John Ford classic, The Old Way mistakenly assumes that old-school means turgid. In the process, it ambles its way right into irrelevant oblivion.
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