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‘The Old Way’ Review: Nicolas Cage Is a Cowboy John Wick in Bare-Bones Revenge Western

Nicolas Cage textures the old John Wayne archetype with a hint of neurodiversity, but "The Old Way" lacks the ambition to follow through on its ideas.

Nicolas Cage in "The Old Way"

“The Old Way”

Nicolas Cage scholars might quibble with the promotional claim that Brett Donowho’s “The Old Way” is the actor’s “first traditional Western” — a choice of words that’s careful not to step on the spurs of neo-genre fare like “Butcher’s Crossing” and “Prisoners of the Ghostland” — but this overly simple revenge story is nothing if not traditional, and even less when it tries to be anything else. 

The first part of the problem is that Donowho’s competent but uncompelling oater doesn’t have enough fresh meat on its bones to fill out its Western cosplay. While Morgan Smith’s jaunty score does its best to summon memories of “My Darling Clementine,” and Carl W. Lucas’ threadbare script channels the same one-way modernity that “Shane” once rode towards an uncertain sunset, “The Old Way” clearly lacks the ambition to shoot for any identity of its own.

Even worse is that it gestures towards one anyway, as this low-budget genre exercise allows its characters just enough ammunition for us to wish they had more interesting targets or that Donowho himself were a better shot. A DTV veteran taking a half step up from the likes of “No Tell Motel” and the Bruce Willis vehicle “Acts of Violence,” the director embraces the eccentricities of his leading man to a certain degree — Cage’s widowed cowboy struggles with the same natural fearlessness that John Wayne wore like a sheriff’s badge, his low-key performance always pointing towards the fact that people were on the autism spectrum long before we invented a term for it — but his film is too acutely serviceable to bother looking at the Western from any unexpected angles, and seemingly uninterested in studying whatever tumbleweeds of tension it finds between old ways and new perspectives.

In that light, perhaps the best thing that can be said about “The Old Way” is that its enervating lack of ambition allows it to steer clear of pretentiousness; for every Fordian glimpse of a girl sitting on the porch in a rocking chair, there’s a shot of Clint Howard getting kicked in the balls (if only the horizon were always in the right place!). The opening scene lays all its cards on the table with an obviousness that assures you the script isn’t hiding an ace up its sleeve. Unfeeling gunslinger Colton Briggs (Cage) brings a man to justice in the town square while the guilty party’s young son watches with a glint in his eye.

Cut to 20 years later, when Colton has rebranded himself as a local store owner in his town, a devoted husband to his wife (Kerry Knuppe), and a semi-absent father to his similarly inexpressive pre-teen daughter, Brooke (Ryan Kiera Armstrong). The little kid from the prologue? He’s a man now (Noah Le Gros as James McCallister), and he’s convinced his well-cast posse of fools to help him exact revenge on Colton for killing his daddy. Little do they know that Colton is the closest thing that 19th-century Montana has to its own John Wick or that murdering his wife is akin to signing their own death warrants. They certainly don’t suspect that Colton may not even be the most dangerous member of his family.

The hook isn’t just that Colton has reformed his (old) ways, but that the world around him has. Civilization has staked its claim on the West during the 20 years between when this movie starts and when it picks back up again, and people don’t murder each other for sport as much anymore. Colton doesn’t bother fighting the tide (“We’re not going back!” he insists with a conviction that transcends its context), but he clearly had an easier time fitting into the fabric of things back when the West rewarded his biochemical fearlessness. Colton doesn’t really know how to relate to his daughter, and he’s made all the more uncomfortable by the fear of losing her mother — the only fear he’s ever known. Being dead inside used to be his greatest strength, and when his wife is killed in cold blood, Colton finds himself dead inside all over again (to the point where it seems like he might shoot his own daughter to snuff out his last remaining vulnerability).

The steely Armstrong holds her own against the recessive Cage (his performance erring closer to “Pig” than the Cameron Poe overtones it serves at the start), and it’s engaging to watch as Brooke starts to appreciate her disposition as its own kind of strength. Maybe Colton can’t relate to her like a “normal” dad, but the fact that he can relate to her at all rings progressive at a time when men were only supposed to grunt at their children, and “The Old Way” is never better than in the scattered moments when it watches these characters work towards a common ground of their own (a mutual understanding galvanized by a fire-lit monologue in the one scene that allows Cage to show his teeth).

Alas, there’s not much else to hold onto as “The Old Way” meanders through a dull series of shootouts, their edges lost under a thick layer of digital gloss. It’s fun to see “E.R.” vet Abraham Benrubi doing some bumbling henchman schtick alongside a millennial breakout like Shiloh Fernandez — not least of all because their characters are respectively named Big Mike and Boots — but the bad guys never amount to anything more than human bait, as they’re trapped along with us in a Western that elides almost every opportunity it gets to avoid the most obvious choice. Colton Briggs was born “dead inside,” and while reckoning with that condition allows his daughter a chance for a different kind of life, “The Old Way” never puts in the work required to find a pulse of its own.

Grade: C

Saban Films will release “The Old Way” in theaters on Friday, January 6. It will be available on VOD on Friday, January 13.

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