For the most part — aside from a few forgettable/unknown titles — no one has really taken on the legend of Butch Cassidy since Robert Redford and Paul Newman went out guns blazing in George Roy Hill‘s 1969 instant classic. Though “Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid” lives on as a cinematic touchstone and cultural reference point, the legend has largely been kept off the big screens as the boots of Redford and Newman are large to fill indeed. So you have admire the stones of writer Miguel Barros, director Mateo Gil and actor Sam Shepard for breaking the forty year taboo and making what is essentially a sequel (though more like a continuation) to the story of the classic outlaws — but with a twist. Well, everyone knows Butch and Sundance died in a shootout with Bolivian officials, but what this movie presupposes is…maybe they didn’t?
When the film kicks off, nearly fifteen years have passed since that fateful shootout and Butch (Shepard) is alive and quite well. He lives peaceably with the Bolivian locals up in the mountains, with a nice home and a casual, easy relationship with a woman, but he’s getting an itch to return home to America. It turns out he’s got a son and he feels enough time has passed that it’s safe for him to travel back to a country where he is likely still a notorious and wanted outlaw. So, in a sequence dripping with rich irony, Butch saddles up and takes the day long ride into town where he walks into a bank and…calmly asks the teller to close his account and hand him all of this cash. “I can’t remember ever being so well-received at a bank before,” Butch quips and with his nest egg in tow, he sets off back home.
Ah, but in a cruel twist of fate Butch soon finds himself separated both from his horse and his money. Eduardo (Eduardo Noriega), a cowardly thief who has been left to die in the desert, tries in vain to steal Butch’s ride and cash, but winds up leaving them both penniless and without transportation in a harsh environment that could easily kill either man. A rightfully pissed Butch lets Eduardo live, but leaves him on his own as he sets off to walk back home, but latter continues to follow, sniveling for help and eventually the weary cowboy capitulates and listens to his story. And suddenly, he’s very, very interested. Eduardo has stolen a handsome sum of money from a local mining company and he agrees to split it with this Butch if he will help him to outrun the guys on his tail and fetch the cash he has stashed way. Warily, Butch agrees.
So, yes, the basic construct of Barros’ script is the familiar “old-guy-pulled-into-one-last-job” framework, but that doesn’t stop him for trying to use every narrative trick in the book to try and open things up. First, there is a wildly intermittent voiceover by Butch, in which the criminal turned sage drops such pearls of wisdom as: “There’s only two moments in a man’s life: One’s when he leaves home, and the other’s when he returns.” There are some largely useless flashback sequences which detail some of Butch and Sundance’s South American adventures — the latter played by Padraic Delaney — supposedly as examples of lessons learned by the still surviving half of the duo. Finally, there are the letter writing sequences as Butch writes the teenage kid under the guise of being his Uncle (the only real show of cowardice by the grizzled man, and an admittedly lovely character detail), announcing his return. Unfortunately, this mish-mash of techniques is jarring, and not particularly cohesively integrated and results in moments feeling forced or phony.
And while Shepard manages to ride out the worst of the dialogue thanks to a very strong, and impressive performance (the creases in his face alone deserve some applause), the rest of the movie fails to operate on his higher level. Try as he might, Noreiga is simply out of his element acting alongside Shephard and he lacks the shades of deviousness or even danger that are required to sell the third act twist and reveal. And while Gil’s direction is capable, though not particularly notable, the decision to use an anonymous sounding Johnny Cash clone to randomly sing tunes throughout the film is fairly unforgivable and its certainly not aided by the overwrought score of Lucio Godoy. But late in the proceedings the film does get a boost as Stephen Rea pops up as the drunken Mackinley, the ex-Pinkerton agent who never believed Butch died and has long been on his tail. From the moment he arrives, you wish he had been in the film from the beginning. Also, a mention needs to be made of cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchía who captures both the lush beauty and wide, dry landscape of Bolivia’s mountains and deserts gorgeously, and even as the story creaks, it at least remains vitally alive visually.
While there was consternation about the film when it was first announced, “Blackthorn” does nothing to add or take away from the legacy of “Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid.” Gil’s film is very much its own and Shephard in particular adds a new dimension and variation on the cowboy with his turn likely just be one more of many iterations of to come. However, while “Blackthorn” ambitiously reaches to try and say something about the futility of trying to erase past actions with new good deeds, as the film shuffles though its clunky second half gets too caught up in the details of its own plot to deliver thematically.
As the film closes, our last look at Butch is once again an ambiguous one, as his fate is left up to our imagination. It’s not just a cheeky nod to Hill’s film, but a way of maintaining the ephemeral nature of legend, the way larger than life figures almost seem like a half remembered dream when they enter and leave the lives of those that cross their paths. But “Blackthorn” itself can’t live up to Butch Cassidy, and while the man himself will continue to live on years after this death, Gil’s film will peacefully but forgettably ride off into the sunset. [C]