[23 October 2013]
Dead in Tombstone is an utterly over-the-top, thoroughly entertaining direct-to-DVD western from Universal Pictures and director Roele Reiné, whose previous credits are also direct-to-DVD and tend to have numbers in their titles (The Marine 2, Death Race 2, Scorpion King 3). The story here is predictable yet somehow absurdly entertaining, with lively camera work and extreme angles that owe much to Sam Raimi’s early films, and perhaps Robert Rodriguez, as well. Besides, it’s got Mickey Rourke as the Devil and Danny Trejo as a badass killer sent back from the dead to wreak revenge. What’s not to love?
The story is pretty straightforward. Trejo is the leader of the Blackwater gang, a band of outlaws and criminals who ride around the Old West wreaking havoc. Drawn to a gold-mining town, the boys pull off a successful heist before betraying their leader and murdering him. Trejo wakes up in Hell, is confronted by the Devil, and wrangles a deal: he’ll will return to life, kill the six members of his traitorous gang, and Satan will grant him his soul back. The catch? He’s got just 24 hours to get the job done.
From here, it’s a simple revenge story, with Trejo and the fetching Dina Meyer as the only memorable characters. The members of the Blackwater gang are largely forgettable, with the exception of ringleader Rojo, played by Anthony Michael Hall, who looks something like a low-rent Kenneth Branagh in need of a shave. Meyer, meanwhile, plays Calathea Massey, a tough frontier woman and recent widow (ahem) who packs a rifle and tosses her artfully tousled hair through events both dire and, well, more dire. She becomes Trejo’s sidekick as he careens through the town, but doesn’t actually do a great deal. (One of the Devil’s stipulations is that Trejo must kill his betrayers himself, so you know that nobody else is going to play a crucial role here.)
The film’s look is critical to its campy appeal, with a color palette filled with deep shadow and high contrasts, and prevailing shades of brown and gray doing the bulk of the heavy lifting. Extreme close-ups are plentiful, as are super slo-mo sequences, drifting smoke, garish lighting and quirky camera angles; director Reiné seems to have an aversion to the static camera, as even ordinary conversations are seem through the lens of a constantly-shifting view. That said, some of the action sequences are surprisingly poor, with constant quick-cuts obscuring what exactly is happening and where the various actors are in relation to each other. This considerably dampens the suspense and excitement of those gunfights.
Other sequences, like the opening scene in which Trejo and his gang bust Rojo out of a prison yard, come off perfectly. The fact that Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s “Beat the Devil’s Tattoo” is grinding away in the background is just the icing on the cake.
All the actors play their roles straight, even Rourke, whose Satan is an ironic, quip-dropping wiseass. (The camp factor comes from the camera work, the angles and slo-mo and close-ups mentioned above, rather than the acting.) This is Trejo’s movie from start to finish, though; the camera lingers on his craggy face in nearly every scene, practically caressing his cheeks as he displays his full range of facial expressions: from mildly pissed off to totally pissed off. It’s unlikely that Trejo has an ironic bone in his body, and he sells the film’s serious intent where many other actors would fail to do so.
This blu-ray/DVD set contains substantial extra features; as is often the case with B-movies, the range of bonus items far outstrips those of many other, highly-regarded films. In addition to 16 minutes of deleted scenes, there is a nine-minute “making of” featurette and a commentary with French director Reiné, who thankfully bypasses the usual self-congratulations and instead offers many interesting insights—that the movie was filmed in Romania, for example, on the same set as 2003’s prestige film Cold Mountain.
The blu-ray adds an entertaining profile of Reiné, plus a couple of features on technical aspects of the film—the creation of both Hell and the town of Tombstone. None of these extras is particularly crucial, but fans of the movie will appreciate this diverting package that extends the viewing experience by another hour—or much more, if you watch the film a second time with commentary.
Danny Trejo has enumerated elsewhere (see the YouTube clip below) “the four B’s” crucial to making a great movie: broads, blood, blades and bullets. Sometimes he swaps out a couple others: bombs and babes. In any case, you get the idea. Dead in Tombstone is pretty much what you’d expect to get if a director used this list to tick off major plot elements. (Babes aside—this is pretty much a boys’ movie, notwithstanding Meyer’s best efforts).
Is Dead in Tombstone smart? No. Is it enlightening? Hell no. Is it enjoyable? You bet, under the right circumstances. Shut off your brain and keep your expectations low, and you’re apt to have a fun ol’ time.