The Movie Waffler New Release Review - DEAD FOR A DOLLAR | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - DEAD FOR A DOLLAR

Dead for a Dollar review
A bounty hunter is hired to track down a black soldier who absconded with a white woman.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Walter Hill

Starring: Christoph Waltz, Willem Dafoe, Rachel Brosnahan, Warren Burke, Benjamin Bratt, Brandon Scott, Hamish Linklater

Dead for a Dollar poster

Dead for a Dollar (not a remake of Osvaldo Civirani's 1968 spaghetti western of the same name) sees Walter Hill return to the western genre for the first time since 1995's under-rated flop Wild Bill. Aside from that movie, Hill has only worked in the genre on two other occasions – 1980's The Long Riders and 1993's Geronimo: An American Legend – but the tenets and tropes of the western can be found throughout his filmography. 48 Hrs is the classic western setup of the lawman reluctantly working alongside a criminal he initially despises but grows to respect. Streets of Fire may be set in a pseudo 1950s neverland but it could just as easily be set in some one-horse town in the old west. The Warriors takes the climactic set-piece of 3:10 to Yuma and stretches it out to feature length. Extreme Prejudice is a western in setting and setup, if not era. Last Man Standing is a Yojimbo remake that owes more to A Fistful of Dollars than Kurosawa's original. The Driver features the sort of taciturn antihero you could imagine being essayed by Clint Eastwood or Franco Nero. The western is a genre Hill knows inside out, which makes the pedestrian Dead for a Dollar all the more disappointing.

The movie opens with a scene that appears to set the drama in motion. Bounty hunter Max Borlund (Christoph Waltz) pays a visit to a New Mexico jail that houses Joe Cribbens (Willem Dafoe). The two men have historical beef, and with Cribbens set to be released in the coming days, Borlund warns him not to come looking for revenge. Cribbens agrees that if Borlund keeps his distance, so will he.

Dead for a Dollar review

Hill, who also wrote the script, then introduces the real central narrative. Borlund is hired by oily entrepreneur Martin Kidd (Hamish Linklater) to "rescue" his wife Rachel (Rachel Brosnahan), who has been "abducted" by a deserting black Union soldier, Elijah Jones (Brandon Scott). Aiding Borlund is buffalo soldier Alonzo Poe (Warren Burke), who knows the whereabouts of Jones and Rachel, but curiously has neglected to divulge such details to Kidd. As you've probably guessed, Rachel hasn't been kidnapped at all, but has willingly absconded with Jones as the two plan to flee to Cuba.

Various plot machinations lead all our characters to a small town in Mexico governed by slimy landowner Tiberio Vargas (Benjamin Bratt). Jones is interred in the local jail while Borlund awaits the arrival of Kidd, unaware that Jones has struck a deal with Vargas. Meanwhile Cribbens has arrived in the same town by chance, setting him on an inevitable collision course with Borlund.

Dead for a Dollar review

On paper Dead for a Dollar has the makings of a classic western. Its general premise isn't a million miles away from one of the genre's best offerings, Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo, in that it largely lets us hang out with a group of characters trying to make sure a prisoner stays put in jail. The difference is the characters in Hawks' film are fun to hang out with, and even break out a few tunes to pass the time, whereas the cardboard caricatures Hill has assembled here have no such dimensions.

It's mostly down to Hill's script, which struggles to define the characters without resorting to speechifying. The worst example of this is Brosnahan's Rachel, who constantly tells us who she is through the sort of feminist monologues that simply don’t ring true for a woman in 1897. Jones and Poe are defined largely by their race, though Scott and Burke acquit themselves well despite their characters' limited personalities. Jones is perhaps the most interesting figure here, and really should have been the central protagonist, but once he's put behind bars he's largely out of the picture. The film's biggest shackle is Waltz, who not for the first time in his career, is badly miscast. It's hard to get a handle on who exactly Borlund is, as Waltz sleepwalks through the role, constantly smiling as though he just came through from a dental anaesthetic. At times he gives the impression of a singing cowboy who can't carry a tune. As with the recent western The Old Way, which saw Nicolas Cage similarly miscast, I found myself daydreaming about what Kevin Costner might have done with this role.

Dead for a Dollar review

Considerably more interesting than the central quartet is the rogues' gallery of supporting characters. Unlike Waltz, Dafoe is ideally cast as the gambler/killer Cribbens, a proud Texan who is honest at cards but not above cheating in a gunfight. Dafoe has the sort of craggy face whose crevices were made to collect the dust of the American South West, and it's hard to think of a current actor more suited to playing a western scoundrel. Bratt is convincing as a slick Mexican landowner while Luis Chavez delivers an Iago-like performance as his translator.

In the final inevitable shootout we're reminded what a good director of action Hill is, but by that point we've lost interest in the characters and so the bodies fall weightlessly. Hill dedicates his film to western master Budd Boetticher, which only serves to remind us of how well this sort of thing has been done in the past. Had Boetticher made Dead for a Dollar it would likely have come in under 80 minutes yet packed in a lot more drama and characterisation.

Dead for a Dollar
 is on UK/ROI VOD now.

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