Like Shane with whimsy, Gunless takes the hoary old template of the gunfighter movie and gives it an utterly Canadian spin based on our comfort myth of niceness.
The resulting clash of cultural myths makes for funny stuff. Although, we’re not talking Blazing Saddles. More like a 19th-century Corner Gas with gunfighter Paul Gross in the fish-out-of-water role.
That it works is a credit to a script that functions on a couple of levels — from the violent-American cliche that it wrings dry, to the “culture of celebrity,” to our status as a “red tape” nation (Gross wants a gunfight, but finds he has to wait for parts to be ordered for the only pistol in town).
As Gunless opens, a horse rides into the dusty B.C. town of Barclay’s Brush (pop. 17) carrying an unconscious rider. He turns out to be The Montana Kid (Gross), who’s crossed the border one step ahead of a bounty hunter (Callum Keith Rennie). He’s also escaped a vigilante mob’s noose, and has been shot.
A sleepy place, The Kid’s entrance sends a jolt of excitement through Barclay’s Brush, from the moment he shoots a portrait of Queen Victoria (assuming she’s the storekeeper’s “uncommonly ugly” mother). The town doctor fixes him up for free. The nearby shantytown of Chinese labourers and their families gives him clean clothes (albeit of the ornate Chinese variety, compounding The Kid’s humiliation).
Indeed, so unused is The Kid to acts of kindness, that when the town’s gargantuan town blacksmith (Tyler Mane, Sabretooth in the X-Men movies) hauls his horse into his shop for free shoes, Gross accuses him of thievery and challenges him to a gunfight ¬— thus setting up the film’s central conundrum.
The Kid is in for a wait, requiring him to find digs. He sets up as a hired hand for the local widow (Sienna Guillory), whose attraction to him is palpable (although, as in every movie romance, it begins as dislike).
Meanwhile, he has to endure the slobbering of the townsfolk, who invite him to dinners to tell exciting stories, and practically have him signing his Wanted posters. “Who are you people? Where are you from?” he asks in exasperation. “Kingston,” says one. “Peterborough,” says another. “Uppsala,” says a Swedish-accented third.
Keeping a circumspect eye on him the entire time is Cpt. Jonathan Kent (90210’s Dustin Milligan), a nicely nuanced sendup of the Dudley Do-Right/Sgt. Renfrew stereotype, accompanied by another sent-up stereotype — an Indian sidekick, portrayed with eye-rolling wryness by Graham Greene.
The Montana Kid’s conversion to peaceability is nicely and sweetly portrayed — with the invasion of armed bad men looming as the climax, as it always is in this genre. Even this is turned on its head, with a minimum of gunfire and a lot of circular logic on a dusty town street. It’s worth noting that the Mounties never seem to be there when the cowchips hit the fan, but they always show up to pick up the pieces.
If One Week was last year’s most Canadian experience to be had in a theatre, so far Gunless is this year’s. The beautiful shooting site in the central B.C. desert is so desiccated it makes you thirsty, and it fills the frame so completely that it almost makes the screen seem bigger.
At the very least, it’ll probably be the least depressing Canadian film this year. A feel-good experience, in fact.
(This film is rated PG)