Thursday, March 15, 2012

Quigley Down Under (1990)


Wyoming sharpshooter Matthew Quigley is a newcomer to Australia.  Someone in Australia wanted the services of the best long-distance shot in the world, and there's no better shot than Quigley--especially when he's using his custom-made Sharps rifle with extended barrel (and all sorts of other features I don't really understand).  Quigley is in for an unpleasant surprise, however, when he learns that his would-be employer, Marsten, wants him to use his skills to shoot not wild dingoes, but people--specifically the local Aborigines that Marsten claims have been causing trouble on his land.  Quigley is understandably outraged and refuses in no uncertain terms, but Marsten is not the sort of man you say no to . . . The next thing Quigley knows, he's been abandoned in the middle of the Australian outback with nothing but his rifle and a crazy woman who thinks he's her long-lost husband.  How will he survive?  What will happen to the Aborigines Marsten is so eager to eliminate?  And will Marsten ever get his comeuppance?

This plot is, as you may have noticed, is on the dark side for a Western.  Not that the genre is all sunshine and rainbows normally, but I'm used to seeing good cowboys pitted against, I don't know, robbers, brawlers, and drunken, lecherous fools.  Even the ones guilty of murder seem to steer clear of killing women and children. Marsten's men are certainly qualified in drunken lechery department--when we first meet them, they are trying to force Crazy Cora into their wagon, presumably for nefarious purposes. But their villainy does not end there. In an interesting (and unsettling) spin on the usual cowboys-and-Indians conflict, Marsten's men are slaughtering native people by the dozen--including women and young children. In one particularly disturbing scene, a group of Aborigines is herded to a cliff's edge where they are essentially forced to jump to their deaths (including mothers with children screaming in their arms). Thus, while the overall tone of the film is not terribly somber--there's plenty of good fun along the way, and the violence, while distressing, is not graphic--but there's no denying the stakes are higher than in your average lighthearted, high-octane action movie.
The Aborigines are, near as I can figure, played by actual Aboriginal Australians. (They are also attired in seemingly authentic Aboriginal garb, which is to say: not much. This nudity is not sexualized in the slightest, however--hence the PG-13 rating.) There's also lots of scenery, if you're into that sort of thing (the movie was filmed on location in Australia).

Tom Selleck is appropriately taciturn and reserved as Quigley; Ebert noted that in an earlier age, he would have been a major Western star, and I think he's right. His unhurried nature and calm confidence are more intimidating by far than bluster could ever be. Also, he is tall, which helps.

Alan Rickman is, of course, superb as the suave and heartless Marsten--the sort of man who can chat excitedly about the 'heroes' of the Old West one minute and order the mass slaughter of an indigenous people the next. Marsten is not quite as cool and in control as Hans Gruber, but Rickman is the master of the sophisticated villain, and for good reason. Plus there's something supremely satisfying about watching a determined American give a snotty Brit what for. I mean, it's Magnum, P.I. v. Snape--what's not to love?

The other main player is Laura San Giacomo (Pretty Woman, Just Shoot Me) as the aptly named 'Crazy Cora'. Hers is the most complex character in the film--she has been driven mad by guilt and tragedy, and constantly confuses Quigley with her husband Roy. Over the course of the film, she shares the truth about her past and is able to gain a certain amount of closure and even redemption, and San Giacomo handles these scenes well.

Bottom line: If you enjoyed Man from Snowy River (or Return to Snowy River, for that matter), or if you like Westerns in general, you'll probably enjoy this movie.  Just be prepared to sit through some uncomfortable scenes.

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