It’s doubtful anyone will accuse the young director Mario Van Peebles of showing too much restraint. His first film, New Jack City (1991), was a ferociously bloody inner-city thriller that struck me as more raucous than exciting; nevertheless, as driven by Wesley Snipes’ psychotically intense comic performance, it was a major hit. Now, in Posse, the first contemporary Western to feature a cast made up almost entirely of African- Americans, Van Peebles once again goes for the gut, the throat, the funny bone, and any other convenient response mechanism he can grab hold of.
Photographed like a gleaming Old West beer commercial, powered by enough Dolby-ized violence to stock a modern urban shoot-‘em-up (this is a movie in which someone cocks a gun and the soundtrack thunders), Posse turns out to be a glossy, kinetic pastiche of Western conventions. Van Peebles has got himself a classical enough story line — noble hero, backed by his posse, searches the wilderness for the bad guys who done him wrong — but as a director he doesn’t know when to slow down. He lifts bits and pieces from John Ford, Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah. He films in so many contrasting locations (desert plains, snowy forests, rocky ledges — blink and you’ll miss Monument Valley) that the film never establishes a consistent look. He introduces multiple villains and piles on flashbacks, brawls, shoot-outs, whorehouse-saloon scenes, cowboys-easing-across-the-plains scenes, low comedy, and dark revenge, capping it off with a nod to the hardship and injustice faced by black settlers in the West. Van Peebles certainly holds your attention; he shoves the entire history of the genre into a Cuisinart and keeps his finger glued to the slice-and-dice button.
In 1897, after the Spanish-American War in Cuba, a crew of infantrymen, betrayed by their evil commander, escape with a cache of gold and return to America as outlaws. Their leader, the handsome, laconic sharpshooter Jesse Lee (Van Peebles), is obsessed with hunting down the men who lynched his preacher father. The rest of the posse doesn’t have anything quite so heavy in mind. They’re a troupe of rowdy, good-time opportunists, ranging from Charles Lane as the tiny, nattering Weezie to Tone Loc as the party-hearty Angel. The crew also has a goofy token white (Stephen Baldwin, the scruffiest of Alec’s brothers).
The most enjoyable thing about Posse is the infectious offhandedness with which the mostly black cast members embrace their roles as gun-toting, horseback-riding outlaws. Ten minutes into the picture and you feel as if you’ve been watching black cowboys forever. That’s partly because the actors are so jovial and relaxed in their roles, and partly, I think, because of what Van Peebles must have had in mind when he chose to call the movie Posse (which doubles as contemporary slang for youth gang): that the image of the Western hero — the man who lives by strength and firepower, unshackled by law — could merge seamlessly with that of the badass urban gunman popularized by cutting-edge rappers (and by movies like New Jack City). Still, I wish the characters were more than paper-thin bits of shtick. In a light-spirited Western like Rio Bravo, an actor such as Dean Martin gets a chance to relax into his role. Here, the cartoon rapper Tone Loc shows a low-down comic vitality that the movie barely exploits.
With his amazingly dashing profile (he looks like a cross between Marvin Gaye and the young Michael Landon), Van Peebles has a genuine heroic presence, his wide-brimmed hat and Mexican shawl an obvious tribute to Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name. For long stretches, however, he’s content to stay on the fringes of the action. The idea appears to be that Jesse, the righteous avenger, is too serious and contained to display his anger. But Van Peebles, charismatic as he is, can’t get by on brooding glances and stylized silhouettes the way an icon like Eastwood can.
For all its rousing action, Posse lacks a center of gravity. The movie features dozens of small speaking parts that you can barely keep track of: characters who show up in a barn, or a jail cell, or the all-black town of Freemanville (where the posse ends up), and then disappear. Westerns, even offbeat ones, demand a lean clarity that Van Peebles, at this point, lacks the discipline to establish. Of course, he may not need to. My guess is that the audience for Posse, charged up by the movie’s hyperbolic gunplay and by the liberating image of blacks cast as vintage American heroes, will hand Van Peebles a second hit. Right now, though, he stands as a canny packager — a purveyor of blastingly violent American fantasy — who has yet to discover himself as a true filmmaker. C+