Van Peebles' 'Posse,' a black Western, has too much of a '90s feel

October 29, 1993|By Scott Hettrick | Scott Hettrick,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Posse

(PolyGram, $94.99, rated R) 1993

Black actors have appeared in many Westerns and sometimes had sizable roles, such as Danny Glover in "Silverado" and Roscoe Lee Brown in the John Wayne movie, "The Cowboys."

But in "Posse," most of the cast is black, as is the director, Mario Van Peebles. Van Peebles also stars as legendary gunfighter Jessie Lee. When the film begins, set against the backdrop of the Civil War, Lee is under the charge of a ruthless U.S. colonel who has tricked Lee and his gang into becoming outlaws for the colonel's personal gain. It's not long before Lee and his gang escape, leaving the colonel wounded and seeking revenge. Thus, the bulk of the movie is a long pursuit with a final showdown in a remote town.

Along the way Lee returns to his hometown, where he reunites with his former lover who is about to marry a respected local

businessman.

Although a Western, the movie has a decidedly 1990s cinematic style and sense of humor, which is frequently hard to rectify with the time frame. Rather than the customary sweeping vistas and dusty trails, Van Peebles uses many close-ups, quick cutaways and slow motion -- even a shot of a bullet traveling in slow motion.

Numerous flashbacks to the brutal murder of Lee's father take too long to unfold and are too disruptive to the progression of the story at hand. OK, already, we understand where his motivation comes from.

Perhaps the most effective achievement here is the audience acceptance of a story that revolves around black actors. It's almost overkill when a postscript informs viewers just how prevalent black cowboys were in the West -- and just how much these people have been ignored by Hollywood and historians.

Born Yesterday

(Hollywood Pictures, $94.95, rated PG)

Contemporary filmmakers continue to mistakenly believe that classic cute comedies from the 1940s and '50s, such as "His Girl Friday" (a remake of "The Front Page" that was redone in 1988 as "Switching Channels") and now "Born Yesterday," will be just as charming the second (or third) time around.

They don't realize that much of what made them so funny back then was that moviegoers weren't as sophisticated and jaded, and that many of these old films are fun to watch now because we subconsciously grant them a certain latitude given their historical context.

But audiences are not so forgiving when watching contemporary actors in a film set in the present day that uses outdated sensibilities and situations as its premise.

In this remake, John Goodman plays an arrogant, hot-tempered, bully of a millionaire who has come to Washington, D.C., to make nice with politicians so he can bribe them into letting him go through with a big real estate deal.

His girlfriend (Melanie Griffith) is the kind of ditz you would expect to have seen in a 1950s movie -- she thinks NPR is the National Rifle Association -- and she is an embarrassment. (But she is no Judy Holliday.) So the boyfriend hires a smug journalist (Don Johnson) to "smarten her up."

This is where the other problem with these kinds of remakes kicks in. Because it is a remake, and because the outcome is so painfully obvious, the film must rely completely on the performances of the actors to overcome the rudimentary plot line. Now, Holliday won an Academy Award for her performance opposite William Holden and Broderick Crawford. Ms. Griffith is in no danger of having to come up with an acceptance speech. Mr. Johnson is adequate. And Mr. Goodman is a one-dimensional caricature.

Certainly modern filmmakers are having difficulty coming up with anything original that has any merit, but, please, let us have our memories of the old comedies as they were originally filmed.

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