Galloping after great moments in the history of film westerns

May 14, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

C Mario Van Peebles didn't just want to make a western. He wanted to make every western.

And in "Posse," he gets about 90 percent of them.

The movie is insanely ambitious, completely captivating and maybe only six plot twists too incoherent. It has style to burn; too bad it didn't burn a few pages of script somewhere in the process.

The curiosity is that Van Peebles, son of legendary Melvin Van Peebles of "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," is much more interesting as a director than as an actor. The movie is constructed around his own screen presence, in the way that Eastwood built "Unforgiven" around himself and that ragged, steel-eyed, rat-trap of a face. Yet as an icon, Van Peebles doesn't really have the smoldering force, the riveting sense of interior drama, to moor the piece. His main character, Jesse Lee, remains a remote and impassive center of the three-ring circus of a movie. Somehow you don't feel Jesse Lee, you only see him.

Jesse Lee is a buffalo soldier, an African-American infantryman with lots of plains service behind him who finds himself in the middle of the Spanish-American War of 1898. Literally in the middle: The film opens in a huge battle, with palm trees exploding and Spanish bullets cutting through the high grass. He and his unit are sent by a cynical white officer (Billy Zane) to steal a Spanish gold shipment behind the lines. Only when they succeed (rather too easily) are they themselves ambushed. But they survive, manage to reach America from Cuba, and set out for the West, to right some past wrongs.

There, with his gang (the "Posse" of the title), he finds himself fighting on the side of black settlers in a free town founded by his father (Robert Hooks), against greedy interests. It sounds like a black-white kind of thing, but Van Peebles is too crafty to reduce issues to pure race, particularly where it may dilute box office. He appends a token white to the good black gang (Stephen Baldwin, who is very vivid) and he appends a token black (Blair Underwood) to the bad white gang. Is this progress or what?

That aside, Van Peebles the director clearly has a sense of history, both filmic and American. The movie is a kind of pick-hit of great moments from great westerns. He's particularly enchanted by the Italian Sergio Leone, who invented Clint Eastwood in "A Fistful of Dollars," and the movie is full of Leone's trademark moments of visual bravura, extremely formalized shots that reduce Western themes to arrangements of totems: A favorite shows a close-up of boots scuffling in the dust and in long focus we see a gunfighter's opponent readying himself for slap-leather time.

But others have their moments, too: Van Peebles re-creates almost exactly -- one might call it a quotation -- the famous slow-motion shot from Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch," where a slain gunman collapses in through a plate glass window. Then there's a scene set -- for no other reason other than homage -- in Utah's Monument Valley, which stood in the work of the great John Ford for just about every state west of the Mississippi except Hawaii, and if Ford had lived long enough, he'd have gotten to that.

At the same time, "Posse" aspires to restore a lost figure to historic status -- the African-American cowboy. In this the film is less than successful. In fact, as a goal, however estimable, it's almost contradictory to the film's showboaty style. The movie is so determinedly a movie, an artifice, that it seems to have nothing to do with any sort of reality. It's such a pastiche, an essay in visual bravado and fantasy, that it can have no other effect but to trivialize its very subject. It's a fantasy of a western, complete to a cast that's so hip-hop "cool" that it's hard to take as anything except a goof.

That's part of the insane overreach of the film. Still, the players are all good, although the movie is so crowded with faces that it could have used a few more characters and a few less moments of "Hey, isn't that . . . ?" Among the "Isn't that's" are Pam Grier, Reginald Veljohnson, Tone Loc, Nipsey Russell, Isaac Hayes, Robert Hooks, Richard Jordan and Paul Bartel. Every time you see one, it takes a second to get back to what's going on in the story.

Van Peebles may have failed at rewriting history but he's made a good stab at redefining folklore.

"Posse"

Starring Mario Van Peebles and Stephen Baldwin

Directed by Mario Van Peebles

Released by Gramercy

Rated R

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