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Blu-ray Review: Blackthorn

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One of the reasons Euro-westerns proved to be so successful with audiences around the world in the ‘60s was that they took a drastic departure from the all-too-typical American versions of the genre. This in itself is a bit ironic, considering the western was an American thing to begin with. Sometimes, you just need to step outside of the box — or, as the case were, have someone else take a look at the box from the outside and show you what the hell you’re doing wrong. In recent years, several attempts at reviving the slumbering American western genre have been somewhat ineffective. And now, just like they did back in the ‘60s, our European cousins have banded together to show us how we could improve things.

Blackthorn brings us a tale from an alternative side of history — one that could very well have occurred in real life, but that we’ll never ultimately know one way or the other. The story here relays that of Butch Cassidy’s later years. Yes, I said “later years.” You see, the whole Butch and Sundance vs. the Bolivian Army thing did not result in the iconic duo being obliterated off of the face of the planet. Instead, an older, wiser, and none-too enthusiastic Butch Cassidy has been living in Bolivia ever since then, having assumed the name of James Blackthorn. Inhabiting the role of Blackthorn/Butch is the great Sam Shepard, who delivers one of his best performances ever here — a feat worthy of several awards.

Forsaking the conventional “let’s shoot up the whole damn countryside” approach to the genre, writer Miguel Barros and director Mateo Gil give their feature a more human slant. Determined to visit San Francisco once again before he dies, the aged Mr. Blackthorn sets about returning home after he learns Etta Place has passed on, but his plan is sidetracked when he makes the acquaintance of a young Spanish robber (Eduardo Noriega), who made off with fifty-thousand dollars worth of silver — and who is being hunted down by an entire community’s worth of vengeful folk determined to reclaim what was theirs. And guess what? Yup: poor Mr. Blackthorn is now smack dab in the middle of these two factions.

Throughout the tale, Blackthorn reminisces about his past with the Sundance Kid, to wit Barros y Gil award us the opportunity to see young Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Cassidy and Irish lad Padraic Delaney (The Tudors) as Sundance. Truth be told, they do a fine job, and Stephen Rea pops up in the present (as well as the past) as the former Pinkerton Detective Mackinley, who has since traded in his shooters for an entirely different kind of shooters — having submitted to the demon of the bottle in lieu of the glory that had passed him by with his failure to capture Cassidy and Sundance. The landscapes of Bolivia are utilized to full extent here, as Gil shows takes us to the high-altitude isolated beauty of the Andes, to the barren salt flats of Uyuni.

As you may have guessed, this isn’t the story of a young outlaw; rather, it is a touching and well-made saga of a former outlaw who put away his bandana long ago. It’s a great story for those of us who grew up watching westerns and always like to ponder what would have happened to our gunslinger heroes twenty years after their prime.

Magnolia Home Entertainment’s 1080p/AVC High-Def transfer of this modern Euro-western is a bit imperfect at times (e.g. a little soft here, slightly grainy there), but is pretty strong overall. A striking English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio lossless track is included here, bringing out the best in sound effects, music, and dialogue. English (SDH) and Spanish subtitles are included. Several deleted/alternate scenes are included as bonus items, along with a making-of featurette, a few trailers, an HDNet promo piece about the film, and several short flicks also helmed by Mateo Gil.

Suffice to say, Blackthorn didn’t succeed in being the 2011 surprise smash hit it likely deserved to be. It’s a pity, too, since this could very well represent a turning point in the latent western genre — and the return of the Euro-western. That said, if you’re an old-school cowboy movie lover, you owe it to yourself to give this one a ride.

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About Luigi Bastardo

Luigi Bastardo is the disgruntled alter-ego of a thirtysomething lad from Northern California who has watched so many weird movies since the tender age of 3 that a conventional life is out of the question. He currently lives in Chico, CA with four cats named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Margaret. Seriously.