James Coburn

Young Guns II (1990, Geoff Murphy)

In many ways, Young Guns II is an improvement over the first. Geoff Murphy knows how to direct a Western, at least until he has to do a showdown scene and then he’s in trouble, but if it’s general Western action, he can do it. And he’s got the same cinematographer as the first movie, Dean Semler, who this entry has a far better color palette to work with. It’s lush. Young Guns II is a lush film.

It’s a bad film too. But lush.

The big problem is how the film treats Emilio Estevez’s Billy the Kid. His psychotic behavior isn’t even a plot point. He’s just rambunctious and a little shit. Emilio Estevez’s Billy the Kid is Dennis the Menace. He’s a twerp. Estevez, screenwriter John Fusco and director Murphy are all on the same page with the character. He’s a murderous twerp, but he’s just a twerp. Any sense of reality is out the window straight off in Young Guns II. The cost of the lushness.

Estevez is bad and not in an interesting way. Kiefer Sutherland and Lou Diamond Phillips look trapped. Neither of them get a subplot. They get pretend subplots, but not actual ones. New cast member Christian Slater is awful. Alan Ruck isn’t bad. William Petersen’s a lame Pat Garrett.

There are a lot of great character actors and just plain familiar character actors filling out the film’s supporting cast and none of them are actually good. I mean, seeing Viggo Mortensen as an uncool government employee is something, but it’s not like he’s good. Tracey Walter’s not even good in Young Guns II. Murphy can’t direct actors. Okay, maybe he wasn’t in on the changes to how to portray Estevez.

Jenny Wright is actually pretty good in a tiny part.

Excellent production design from Gene Rudolf–another of the improvements over the first film–and a really weird, bad score from Alan Silvestri. He hits a lot of the regular Silvestri cues, occasionally to success, but it’s omnipresent and too loud. He also has a theme similar to the opening of Time After Time and you just sit there and wish Cyndi Lauper would start singing so there’d be something good.

It’s okay until the third act? I mean, it’s fine until the third act. I don’t know why I’m trying to be nice. Oh, because I’m listening to Time After Time and I have goodness, which Young Guns II doesn’t really offer.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Geoff Murphy; written by John Fusco; director of photography, Dean Semler; edited by Bruce Green; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Gene Rudolf; produced by Irby Smith and Paul Schiff; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Emilio Estevez (Billy), Kiefer Sutherland (Doc), Lou Diamond Phillips (Chavez), Christian Slater (Arkansas Dave), William Petersen (Pat Garrett), Alan Ruck (Hendry William French), R.D. Call (D.A. Rynerson), James Coburn (John Simpson Chisum), Balthazar Getty (Tom O’Folliard), Jack Kehoe (Ashmun Upson), Robert Knepper (Deputy Carlyle), Viggo Mortensen (John W. Poe), Tracey Walter (Beever Smith), Bradley Whitford (Charles Phalen), Scott Wilson (Governor Lewis Wallace) and Jenny Wright (Jane Greathouse).


The Great Escape (1963, John Sturges)

While The Great Escape runs nearly three hours, director Sturges and screenwriters James Clavell and W.R. Burnett never let it feel too long. Part of the quick pace comes from the first half hour being told in something like real time and another big part of it is the aftermath of the escape taking up the last hour. So for ninety minutes, the audience is getting to know and like the characters. It gives the escape aftermath a breakneck pace, even though Sturges doesn't do much different.

The Elmer Bernstein score also plays a large part. It's frequently upbeat and congratulatory to the characters (and sometimes the audience), but Bernstein also bakes in the possibility of tragedy. The music can go from light to dark in a second and the film trains the audience to prepare for such moves.

Also contributing to the film's relative brevity is how the script pairs characters up. Usually it's a strong personage with a weaker one, but the actors do such a good job–and Sturges often sticks with scenes of characters' frailties until they're uncomfortable–the pairings are never hollow. Even Steve McQueen, who gets a huge solo set piece at the end, starts off with a sidekick or two.

Most of the acting is spectacular. Richard Attenborough might give the best performance; him or James Donald. They both have the most responsibility and it clearly weighs on them. But James Garner, McQueen, Donald Pleasence, Gordon Jackson, Hannes Messemer–also all excellent.

It's an outstanding picture.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by John Sturges; screenplay by James Clavell and W.R. Burnett, based on the book by Paul Brickhill; director of photography, Daniel L. Fapp; edited by Ferris Webster; music by Elmer Bernstein; released by United Artists.

Starring Steve McQueen (Hilts), James Garner (Hendley), Richard Attenborough (Bartlett), James Donald (Ramsey), Charles Bronson (Danny), Donald Pleasence (Blythe), James Coburn (Sedgwick), Hannes Messemer (Von Luger), David McCallum (Ashley-Pitt), Gordon Jackson (MacDonald), John Leyton (Willie), Angus Lennie (Ives), Nigel Stock (Cavendish), Jud Taylor (Goff) and Robert Graf (Werner).


Maverick (1994, Richard Donner)

Maverick is a lot of fun. In fact, it’s so much fun, when the film runs into problems in its second act, it’s impossible to be disappointed. It’s still so likable, one just feels bad it doesn’t maintain its quality.

There are two major problems. The first is the music. When the film starts–and for the majority of the run time–it’s a Western. It’s a very funny Western and has an affable Randy Newman score. Then it becomes a poker game movie… and the music inexplicably becomes modern country Western music. There’s one painful montage in particular where the music choice saps the energy of the film.

The second problem is the conclusion. William Goldman has a lot of fun with the twists at Maverick‘s finish and they’re nice to watch unravel… but it’s still a lot of padding. Alfred Molina’s character, for example, gets summarized in the conclusion instead of getting his due.

Molina gives the film’s most impressive performance. He’s creepy and dangerous; a very physical performance without much show of force. Just fantastic.

Mel Gibson’s great, so’s Jodie Foster, so’s James Garner. But the film’s made for them. I guess Foster, who doesn’t usually bring as much personality, is the standout of the three.

Graham Greene’s hilarious too.

Donner does fine. He and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond conceive an excellent Western. Donner primarily concentrates on the mood and the actors. Zsigmond and the scenery handle the rest.

Maverick is a joy, even with its bumps.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Donner; screenplay by William Goldman, based on the television series created by Roy Huggins; director of photography, Vilmos Zsigmond; edited by Stuart Baird and Michael Kelly; music by Randy Newman; production designer, Thomas E. Sanders; produced by Donner and Bruce Davey; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Mel Gibson (Bret Maverick), Jodie Foster (Annabelle Bransford), James Garner (Marshal Zane Cooper), Graham Greene (Joseph), Alfred Molina (Angel), James Coburn (Commodore Duvall), Dub Taylor (Room Clerk), Geoffrey Lewis (Matthew Wicker), Paul L. Smith (The Archduke), Dan Hedaya (Twitchy, Riverboat Poker Player), Dennis Fimple (Stuttering), Denver Pyle (Old Gambler on Riverboat), Clint Black (Sweet-Faced Gambler) and Max Perlich (Johnny Hardin).


Payback (1999, Brian Helgeland), the director’s cut

I don’t know if I’d say I’ve been waiting ten years to see the director’s cut of Payback, but I guess I’ve been interested in it for ten years–it’s supposed to be the meaner version. Too bad Mel Gibson, even a good Mel Gibson, is Mel Gibson. Even when he’s being tough and mean, he’s got an element of cute. If you like Mel Gibson, you’ll probably like Payback.

It’s a tough guy movie set in a no name city, the film noir city of the 1950s, only Helgeland wastes a lot of time drawing attention to the city not having a name… (it’s Chicago). Helgeland’s direction is solid, but his establishing shots are really poorly framed, usually because he doesn’t know how to shoot the city. It looks like he doesn’t know how to do establishing shots, making it appear incompetent.

The most impressive thing about the film is acting. Helgeland’s rediscovery of Gregg Henry is something to be seen. Maria Bello’s good. Deborah Kara Unger is good. William Devane and James Coburn’s cameos are both great.

Unfortunately, the film gets to a point where there’s nowhere to go. The film’s philosophy just doesn’t work for making a successful picture. Played straight, it might have been better. Gibson’s character arc fails, as the character inexplicably develops emotional concern.

So, at that conclusion, when Helgeland’s run out of plot, he stops the movie. It’s a downhill slide from a rather strong opening. I suppose it’s a somewhat graceful decision.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Brian Helgeland; screenplay by Helgeland, based on a novel by Donald E. Westlake; director of photography, Ericson Core; edited by Kevin Stitt; music by Chris Boardman; production designer, Richard Hoover; produced by Bruce Davey; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Mel Gibson (Porter), Gregg Henry (Val), Maria Bello (Rosie), David Paymer (Stegman), Deborah Kara Unger (Lynn), William Devane (Carter), Bill Duke (Detective Hicks), James Coburn (Fairfax) and Lucy Liu (Pearl).


The Magnificent Seven (1960, John Sturges)

Apparently, no director has ever needed a good script more than John Sturges. His work in The Magnificent Seven is static, the camera as disinterested in the film’s goings-on as the majority of the cast. He lets the camera sit and stare, cutting when it wakes up from its nap. He also appears not to have shot enough coverage for the film–or any explanatory establishing shots, so there’s no good sense of the film’s setting. The lack of coverage means the cuts are ugly and fades are overused. Elmer Bernstein’s omnipresent score (poorly) covers Sturges’s ass throughout, the glue holding whole sequences together.

Before we started the movie, I told the fiancée the theme was the best thing about The Magnificent Seven. Unfortunately, it’s also pretty much the only good thing… Yul Brynner’s the lead and the protection of the farmers is the story and the scenes with them together are brain-numbing. The only time Brynner ever shows any life is during the bromance scenes with Steve McQueen. Those are mostly all of McQueen’s scenes so he doesn’t do anything else. Charles Bronson and Robert Vaughan actually have characters and Sturges treats them well (all Sturges needs is some real content–even the illusion of depth–and The Magnificent Seven doesn’t even make an exiguous offering). Their stories are the only time Seven gets interesting (the McQueen and Brynner bromance, however, is all the more amusing since Brynner hated McQueen). James Coburn has so little to do in the film he’s practically invisible.

The biggest problem–besides the terrible writing and the Hispanic cast speaking lame English dialogue–is Horst Buchholz, who has the most important role in the film. Buchholz is German (with the accent to prove it), playing a Mexican farmboy who wants to be a gunfighter. Calling his performance bad is like calling the sun hot.

Technically, the film’s in between. Great day for night photography, terrible sets. Whenever they get on a set, which is often, Sturges’s ability oozes from an exposed boil. The lifeless shots get even worse.

The Magnificent Seven is a chore of a film to watch, even though, in a historical sense, it’s rather important. Lots of filmmakers saw this film and then made good movies instead of ones like it.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed and produced by John Sturges; screenplay by William Roberts, based on a film written by Kurosawa Akira, Hashimoto Shinobu and Oguni Hideo; director of photography, Charles Lang; edited by Ferris Webster; music by Elmer Bernstein; released by United Artists.

Starring Yul Brynner (Chris), Eli Wallach (Calvera), Steve McQueen (Vin), Horst Buchholz (Chico), Brad Dexter (Harry), Charles Bronson (O’Reilly), Robert Vaughn (Lee), James Coburn (Britt), Vladimir Sokoloff (Old Man), Rosenda Monteros (Petra) and Jorge Martinez de Hoyos (Hilario).


The Last of Sheila (1973, Herbert Ross)

The Last of Sheila has the most constantly deceptive structure I’ve seen in a while. Watching the time code on the DVD player (and on the laserdisc and VHS players before it, and the clock for televised films even before those inventions) really changes the way one experiences a film. I’m always telling my fiancée we watch films at home and see them at the theater. It’s a measure of control. One can pause, rewind–and stop (I guess this website is more about video-watching than theatergoing, otherwise it’d be called The Walk Receipt or something–it’d actually be called The Golden Ticket after a particular theater’s refund ticket). Anyway, during The Last of Sheila I kept frequent note of the time. It’s a mystery with a cast of familiar stars going somewhere and… mystery ensuing. Since it’s a closed location (a yacht) and Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins wrote (don’t know why I’m attributing this assumption to them, but I am), I figured it’d be stagy, like an adapted play. Obviously, I shouldn’t have made that assumption, just because the film’s all about Hollywood people. The film isn’t traditional–one could sit and use the time code alone to discuss how the story works. Lots of things happen at the thirty minute mark and then a lot happens around ninety minutes. It’s a two hour movie. Even with that frequent observation of the time code, I couldn’t tell where The Last of Sheila was going. I guessed at the culprit, but I never guessed at the eventual resolution, or how the film got there. It’s remarkable, especially since the film started out with director Herbert Ross doing all the lame stuff I associate with his name and it’s incredibly unfortunate Sondheim and Perkins didn’t go on to anything else. It’d be impossible for them to have topped Sheila, because one would have expected it from them–and the casting is incredibly important in ways I can’t possibly discuss without spoiling something–but I would watch a film, written by those two, about two kids who decide to open a pickle-farm. I imagine it would have been wonderfully effective.

As I said, talking about the cast is difficult, but there are some people I can point out. Obviously, Joan Hackett is quite good, but so is Ian McShane, who was once young and slim. James Mason is good. James Coburn I’ve never been able to figure out. He’s good in some stuff, but in other stuff he’s unbearably campy. I thought he was going to go campy for Sheila, but doesn’t. The only weak actor is Raquel Welch, who’s essentially playing herself. She can’t do it.

I was going to say one would have to be familiar with some film history to fully appreciate The Last of Sheila, but that judgment was wrong. It’s just a really good mystery. Even if the locations (and sets) bring more to it than Herbert Ross did.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed and produced by Herbert Ross; screenplay by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins; director of photography, Gerry Turpin; edited by Edward Warschilka; music by Billy Goldenberg; distributed by Warner Bros.

Starring Richard Benjamin (Tom), Dyan Cannon (Christine), James Coburn (Clinton), Joan Hackett (Lee), James Mason (Philip), Ian McShane (Anthony) and Raquel Welch (Alice).


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