"Quigley Down Under" wants desperately to be a traditional western, but the problem is, it doesn't know which tradition it wants to follow. So it follows them all, and the results are inevitably chaotic.
On the one hand, it's an epic in the old John Ford style, with a romantic, bodacious hero performing acts of derring-do against a giant horizon and landforms that look like monuments in the sunlight.
On another, it's a self-consciously liberal western, like "Broken Arrow," condemning a policy that amounted to genocide against a native people.
And on still another -- hmm, that's three hands, isn't it? -- it's a psychological western, turning on a woman's dark past and her peculiar ways of expiating it.
And, to bring the hands up to four, it's a revenge western, after the Italian variety, where a hero with a specially crafted weapon becomes a spirit of vengeance, hunts down and in sequences of explicit violence, does a great deal of killing.
And it takes place in Australia.
Tom Selleck, looking great with a Buffalo Bill mustache and lip beard -- you know, one of those little deltas of hair beneath his lower lip, a kind of baby-goatee -- plays an American rifleman named Matthew Quigley, who carries a Sharps rifle in .45-70. He can hit what he's aiming at, or so the movie has it, out to a thousand yards, through a gizmo called a Vernier sight. It's to the movie's disadvantage, I should add, that the rifle is a far more authentic character than any of the humans.
Quigley has been hired by an evil rancher named Elliott Marston, played by the silky geek Alan Rickman, so malevolent in "Die Hard" and just as malevolent here. Ostensibly, Quigley will be a varmint hunter, picking off the wild dingo dogs who assail Marston's sheep herds; in reality, he's been hired to pick off the aborigine tribesmen who bedevil Marston but who have learned to stay out of conventional rifle range.
The movie, directed by Simon Wincer, the Aussie who helmed the epic TV series "Lonesome Dove," gets to this point simply too fast and without any mystery; and by its 10th minute, "Quigley Down Under" has lost whatever claim to originality it had and seems to have forgotten even that it takes place in the Antipodes. It just becomes about killing.
Several of the action sequences are thrilling, and that Sharps rifle is an effective tool around which to arrange them. But the cliches mount up like little doggies on a cattle drive, each one of them deflating the story. For example, after "firing" Quigley, Marston arranges for him to be dumped into the wilderness so that "Australia can kill him." Well, the real reason is so that Quigley can survive, which would be difficult if Marston ordered the far more practical bullet in the brain. And there's the usual mumbo-jumbo about the natives' higher spiritual values, gift of magic and refined ability to "melt away" into the desert, when it suits the story.
And the movie's liberal conscience is at war with its sense of romance. Several wretched scenes show Marston's gang murdering aborigines, including a horrible sequence in which they throw children over a cliff. It's simply too graphic and breaks the western magic. Think, by contrast, of the horror Ford was able to bring to the massacre scene at the beginning of "The Searchers," without showing a single body but watching, instead, the pain and fury on John Wayne's stricken face. (Not that Selleck, handsome as he is, has a 10th of Wayne's talent.)
Poor Laura San Giacomo, with her Minnie Mouse features, seems hopelessly out of place on the Australian frontier of the 1880s; she's so urban and now. She brings with her a garbled past whose guilts she is supposed to overcome by her ordeal, but it's another misplaced stroke, unconvincing and absurdist.
"Quigley" tries hard and anybody with a love of great westerns will want to like it. But it's so derivative it seems old, rather than old-fashioned.
"Quigley Down Under."
'Quigley Down Under'
Starring Tom Selleck and Laura San Giacomo.
Directed by Simon Wincer.
Released by United Artists.