A squinty-eyed, cigarillo-chomping gunslinger of nebulous motives played by an actor with the last name Eastwood. An abducted woman. A few bloody shootouts. Some lovely footage of the American frontier, as played by a foreign country. On the surface, “Diablo” would seem to have all of the proper ingredients for a rollicking retro Western, yet its sights are set a bit higher, which inspires both admiration for its moxie and disappointment that its script and direction aren’t up to the challenge. Worth watching mostly to see Scott Eastwood tackle a role straight out of his famous father’s playbook — he nails the mannerisms, though the character never takes shape — “Diablo” is certainly more ambitious than the average slice of downmarket Netflix genre fodder, but looks destined for much the same commercial fate.
The second feature from director Lawrence Roeck (“The Forger”), “Diablo” boasts the skeleton of an interesting allegorical oater — at times even a horse-mounted psychological thriller — but Carlos de los Rios’ screenplay never manages to provide flesh or a beating heart, leaving the whole endeavor feeling more like a rough draft. Following a title card that places us in the Colorado Territory seven years after the end of the Civil War, the film drops us cold into a late-night raid, with a quartet of Mexican bandits setting fire to the home of Jackson (Eastwood) and making off with his wife, Alexsandra (Camilla Belle). Managing to salvage his trusty steed and trusty sidearms, Jackson sets off in pursuit.
Despite its lean running time and aversion to superfluous detail, the film locks into a loose, ambling rhythm in the early going as Jackson traverses the snowy terrain. (Alberta subs well for Colorado here, and d.p. Dean Cundey makes nice use of drone photography to take in the surroundings.) We initially know nothing about Jackson or his wife prior to the kidnapping, though the chilly reception he gets from the various frontier types he encounters telegraphs that our hero might not be all that he seems.
Jackson’s travels bring him into contact with a traveling Chinese merchant (Tzi Ma), a curious Native American boy (Samuel Marty) and a fellow Civil War veteran (Danny Glover), but his recurring antagonist is Ezra, a strutting, sarcastic psychopath with a sickly brown-toothed smile and a jones for indiscriminate murder. Played by Walton Goggins with Mephistophelean brio, Ezra brings an immense deal of life to the film in his all too brief scenes, and Goggins’ presence here, in addition to the nearly identical setting, all but begs for comparisons to “The Hateful Eight” which are unlikely to be in “Diablo’s” favor.
That the film is heading for a big reveal roughly two-thirds of the way through will come as little surprise. The twist — much more Stevenson than Shyamalan — isn’t without promise, and allows for Eastwood to essay a broader spectrum of emotions than simple flinty toughness. Yet it’s nonetheless clumsily handled, and the last stretch of the film goes south in a hurry, climaxing with an almost parodically implausible gun battle.
As for Eastwood, upstaged though he may be by both Goggins and Glover, there’s something bold about his willingness to so directly invoke his father, especially considering how uncannily alike the two look; even if his primary strengths as an actor lie elsewhere, the flimsiness of his character here is more down to the writing than the performance. Technical credits are strong, and despite a somewhat portentous score, the film looks excellent for its budget.