Begin with a reliable pursuit-and-revenge plotline, lay on a Sergio Leone look and flashback structure, stir in some John Ford community values and Sam Peckinpah violence, tag "The Magnificent Seven" on at the end and paint it black , and you've got "Posse."
Begin with a reliable pursuit-and-revenge plotline, lay on a Sergio Leone look and flashback structure, stir in some John Ford community values and Sam Peckinpah violence, tag “The Magnificent Seven” on at the end and paint it black , and you’ve got “Posse.” Suffused with a contemporary sensibility and constructive social agenda, Mario Van Peebles’ lively pastiche of Western conventions races through its paces with little attention to nuance or characterization, but its frequent action, hip attitude and cool cast should score with general youthful audiences as well as blacks, and give Gramercy Pictures a winner with its maiden release. Pic bowed last night at the USA Film Festival in Dallas.
“Posse” is far from being the first black Western, but leads the pack of several due out in coming months. While entertainment remains its foremost concern, slickly made film also dedicates itself to righting the wrongs of hundreds of oaters before it that eliminated all mention of the substantial presence of black cowboys, outlaws and settlers in the Old West. This corrective lends a refreshing twist to otherwise familiar goings-on and provides the source of much of its humor.
As told by narrator and stalwart Western actor Woody Strode, who’s seen in bookends to the action, the “posse” is more or less intact at the outset. Engaged in the Spanish-American War in Cuba in 1898, a ragtag band of recruits, including strong silent type Mario Van Peebles, bespectacled Charles Lane, giant Tiny Lister Jr., cigar-chomping Tone Loc and irreverent white boy Stephen Baldwin, is betrayed by their vicious commanding officer, the swashbuckling Billy Zane, and flees from their regiment with a large stash of gold.
Landing in New Orleans, the gang takes temporary refuge in a bordello, where they also pick up another member, a laconic riverboat gambler with the nifty name of Father Time (Big Daddy Kane).
Initial half-hour establishes plenty of sassy attitude, which is amusing if a lot more 1990s than 1890s, but little motivation aside from Van Peebles’ as a man with a moral code out to avenge the men who killed his father and tormented him as a boy. Passing through snowy mountains, Monument Valley and Indian country, the band finally arrives at Freemansville, a utopian black township dedicated to peaceable living, black self-sufficiency and the principle, espoused by Van Peebles’ preacher father, of “Education Is Freedom.”
But the arrival of the gang doesn’t sit well with venal nearby sheriff Richard Jordan and his Ku Klux Klan goons, who suddenly covet Freemansville since it lies along a future railway route. So the men are recruited, a la “Magnificent Seven,” to help save the town from the marauders, who themselves receive Zane’s support.
Sy Richardson and Dario Scardapane’s eventful script, which evinces film buff and socially relevant awareness in roughly equal measure, packs in enough confrontations, fights and shootouts for several films, which will keep action fans happy.
But neither the writers nor Van Peebles, in his first directorial outing after his successful debut with “New Jack City,” know how to modulate the drama to maximize its impact. Van Peebles gets across the humor and violence, but hasn’t grasped what all the genre’s top practitioners have mastered about building to cathartic climaxes through quiet sequences and accumulated tension.
As a result, and despite all its agreeable revisionism and breezy bonhomie, “Posse” has the feel of a mish-mash of elements all thrown into a big pot and stirred. Lacking dramatic grounding and structuring, even the pertinent revelations that will be most surprising and interesting to modern audiences carry more intellectual than emotional resonance.
Still, Van Peebles demonstratesthe adaptability and current viability of the genre by enthusiastically employing its conventions to his own ends, and that alone should prove exhilarating to many for whom Westerns constitute a distant notion rather than a profound memory.
Of course, the guys, led by the stoical Van Peebles himself, all look ultra-sharp decked out in cowboy duds, riding horses and firing rounds. Actors are clearly having fun, and it’s contagious, although many of the familiar names in the hefty supporting cast are wasted in throwaway roles.
Tech credits and locations are solid, although Michel Colombier’s score is uncharacteristically dull.