Thursday, May 13, 2010


"Bad Company" (**1/2 out of ****) qualifies as a modest, offbeat, revisionist western. No, this unconventional oater about youth in revolt with Jeff Bridges and Barry Brown doesn't celebrate the golden opportunities that awaited settlers out west like the typical John Ford horse opera would have. Instead, everybody complains about the lack of hospitality and the arduous ordeals that the pioneers weathered on the rugged frontier. Benton's directorial debut with this tale of the survival of the fittest won't overwhelm you, but neither will it underwhelm you. Think of "Bad Company" as art-house fare. Benton is more indebted to Charles Dickens than Zane Grey.

"Bonnie and Clyde" scenarist Robert Benton teams up again with co-scribe David Newman, but Benton is calling the shots now rather than somebody else. He depicts crime on the prairie as neither glamorous nor simple. Moreover, he presents violence as impersonal, arbitrary, and without a shred of sentiment. For example, a young thief steals a pie on the window ledge of a farm house. As the youth scampers away with the pie, the back of the head erupts in a geyser of blood and the impact of the bullet hurls him headlong into the dirt. Benton stages an impressive hanging scene without the usual ostentation. A small group gathers around the convicted man. They place him astride a horse, and a deputy ambles away with the horse without warning so that the criminal slips off it and sways momentarily with a kick or two. Everything about the hanging takes place in such a matter-of-fact way that the punishment itself lacks any impact, except for the strung-up casualty.

Our protagonists are a footloose Union Army draft dodger from Ohio and an ill-bred ruffian who preys on the unsuspecting. As "Bad Company" unfolds, the Union Army is rounding up young men who have tried to avoid enlisting in the military. An idealistic Ohio youth, Drew Dixon (Barry Brown of "Halls of Anger") evades the Union troopers when they search his house and then his parents pack his belongs, give him some dough, and send him on to Fort Joseph, Missouri, where he plans to catch a wagon train west to Virginia City. When he arrives in St. Joseph, Missouri, naive Drew falls in with the unprepossessing likes of roguish Jake Rumsey (Jeff Bridges of "Rancho Deluxe") who leads him down a side alley and clubs him. Drew has a wad of cash stashed in his shoe, but Jake walks off with less than ten dollars. Later, Drew looks for a Methodist woman. Jakes' cohorts rob her, but he returns her purse and breaks into her house without realizing that Drew is waiting for her return. Drew and Jake tangle in a knock-down, drag-out brawl, and Jake is so impressed with Drew's sparring skills that he takes a liking to him. The Methodist woman returns to her home and screams at the sight of destruction, prompting Jake and Drew to exit before they are caught on the premises. Whereas Jake is a cheerful thief, Drew tries to stick to the straight and narrow. For example, Jake and his gang coerce Drew into proving his mettle by robbing a storekeeper. Drew takes money from his shoe and smashes up his fist to prove that he dealt with resistance from the storekeeper. Jake and his riff-raff accept Drew as one of their own. They are all teenagers and they dress like the children of Eastern settlers. Nobody wears traditional western gear.

Two well-helmed scenes illustrate the theme of the West as a land of woes rather than promise. Benton has an amusing incident happen when the boys encounter a farmer with his wife on a wagon in the middle of the prairie. The farmer warns them the nothing good can come of the west. They tried to till the land, but Mother Nature threw one obstacle after another in their way. Finally, the farmer, Zeb (Ted Gehring of "The Thomas Crown Affair") strikes a bargain with the boys that they can have intercourse with his wife, Min (Monika Henreid of "The Omega Man"), for eight dollars. Of course, Jake is the first one to mount her and he finishes up in lightning fast time. Zeb comments about Jake's celerity, and Jake is proud that he came so rapidly, not realizing the onus attached to premature ejaculation. Later, our heroes are caught off-guard by an older gang of outlaws led by Big Joe (David Huddleston of "McQ") who laments the day that he went west. Big Joe and his minions rob the boys, but they leave them their horses. Inevitably, Jake's gang begins to fall apart, especially after the encounter with Big Joe and his outlaws. They dine with a farmer who keeps them covered with a shotgun. At one point, they steal chickens from another farm and one of them dies ignominiously stealing a pie. Before long, Jake and Drew are set afoot when their friends betray them. Jake and Drew turn on each other and Drew joins a posse led by a marshal (Jim Davis of "The Honkers") and he catches up with Jake, but he cannot stand to see Jake swing.

Altogether, irony permeates "Bad Company," and our two anti-heroic leads dabble with little success in crime until the last scene when they emerge as bank robbers. In a sense, the end is the beginning for them as mature criminals. Most of the action occurs on the prairie, and the prairie here looks dreary, overgrown with foliage, and never scenic. Mountains don't crouch ominously on the horizons. Despite the lackluster setting, Benton's low-budget oater is blessed by the cinematography of "Godfather" lenser Gordon Willis. Willis imparts a sense of muted beauty to the surroundings of this Spartan tale shot in the Flint Hills area near Emporia, Kansas. Again, "Bad Company" isn't a traditional western and only one important character sports a Stetson. Nobody dresses like the usual cowboy, though the sets have a western flavor. The big shoot-out between our heroes and Big Joe’s gang is realistically handled, but nothing truly stands out about the action. "Bad Company" ranks as an above-average movie, probably more sophisticated than it needed to be. Newman and Benton has written an interesting tale of initiation, but the stakes here are pretty low and the filmmakers are more prone to poking fun—subtle fun—at the genre rather than delivering slam-bang shoot-outs, breathless chases, and knuckle-bruising bar room brawls. Geoffrey Lewis, John Quade, and Ed Lauter make memorable henchmen.