Sunday, June 5, 2011

No Deniro Pistolero: LUCKY LUKE (2009)

I’ll be the first to admit, as an American, I have no deep-rooted emotional connection and pangs of nostalgia when it comes to the Belgian comic that has dated back a full 65 years. In spite of the fact that it has been one of the three most popular comics in Europe for over half a century and has been translated into 26 languages, it really never caught on here in North America. Well, except for Canada, but come on now, that doesn’t really count does it? All nationalistic snideness aside, Lucky Luke was a bit too nice and a bit too subtle for American comics readers who preferred straight-up heroics or broad comedy in their illustrated stories, not a reworking of Jesse James into a self-styled, Shakespeare-quoting Robin Hood! Shakespeare? In comics? Preposterous, I say! How do I know this, you ask? Well, truth be told, when I was a kid my french aunt gave me a fist full of European comic books that included Lucky Luke and Asterix the Gaul. I got them, but I sure didn't get them. Of course, I’m sure it didn't help that they were all in French. A nice thought, but follows French logic that anything French is a gift from god, even if you are an eight-year-old American kid in a Mexican neighborhood whose understanding of French is limited to those fried potato snacks at fast food joints.

Lucky Luke is a cowboy from the tiny, eternally troubled Daisy Town, who seeks out justice, but has never killed a man. His gun is faster than his shadow and he rides Jolly Jumper, the smartest horse west of the Pecos. He quit smoking in 1983 after much heated press on the subject and took up chewing on a weed. Interestingly this bit of political correctness was alleged to be an attempt to gain a foothold in the American market. Silly Europeans! We don’t care if he smokes or not, he just needs to start killing people! Americans have no interest in a hero that puts the bad guys in jail. They are bad guys! Bad guys are dispatched with extreme predjudice and a witty pun. Duh!

Amazingly it wasn’t until 1991 that Lucky Luke became a live-action film, only four animated films were his only legacy up until that point. From ’91 to ’93 Terence Hill stepped into Lucky Luke’s big boots with two feature films and an eight episode TV mini-series. As much as I enjoy this version of Lucky Luke and as hugely popular as they are, it is really just Hill doing his thing with a smattering of Daisy Town trappings.

In 2004 Til Schweiger of all people, saddled up for LES DALTON, a film that featured Lucky Luke’s Dalton Gang as central characters as essayed by French comedy team Eric Judor and Ramzy Bedia, better known as Eric and Ramzy. Yes, the words “French”, “comedy” and “team” all mashed together fill me with horror and dread too. Still, this set the stage for what is probably the most ultra-stylized western to hit the cinema screens in… well, a really long time! From the same producers, LUCKY LUKE (2009) has the good fortune to star French comic actor Jean Dujardin. Dujardin claimed international success with the low-key, impeccably detailed send-up of ‘60s spy films OSS 117: CAIRO NEST OF SPIES (2006) and it’s very ill-advised 2009 sequel. Here he slides flawlessly into the role, right down to the shock of hair jutting out from under his hat. As much as I love me some Terrence Hill, Dujardin nails Lucky Luke.

Setting the stage for what is quite possibly the most visually arresting western ever made, a young Johnny Luke witnesses the brutal murder of his parents by the Cheater gang. Raised by his father’s best friend and mayor of Daisy Town, Cooper (Jean-François Balmer), John Luke was lucky to have survived. Flash forward and Lucky Luke is summoned by the President (of the United States, of course). It’s coming down to election time and the First Transcontinental Rail Road is at an impasse. The joining point is Daisy Town, Utah (in place of the actual point, Promontory, Utah), but Daisy Town has become so overrun with cutthroats and outlaws that nobody from the rail companies will get near it. So who better to clean up Daisy Town than its most famous former resident? The god-fearing folk of the town hide anywhere they can (like in barrels) from the rampaging vermin in the streets. Naturally Luke makes short work of the dastardly denizens with his lightning fast draw, which puts him square up against Pat Poker (Daniel Prévost); A slick card wielding mob-boss who is ruling the town with an iron fist. After a few altercations, it’s time for a showdown in the street. Poker is good, but he cannot match the lightning fast draw of Lucky Luke who shoots him straight through the heart. The end.

Wait! No, sorry, that’s not the end, in fact that is the first 30 minutes! And what a stunning first act it is. In that 30 minutes alone there are more camera set-ups, lighting effects, oblique angles, complex rack focus shots than in a whole mega-plex of summer blockbusters. Every shot is bursting with detail, complete with amazing sets that were built from the ground up to look exactly like they came out of the comics. Unfortunately, we still have another hour to go and the French, no matter how hard they try to ape American films with some of their recent big budget productions, will always be French and the story segues from an inspired translation of the comic to a brooding, completive drama. This total shift in attitude is like taking a Lamborghini doing 150 in sixth gear and dropping it straight down into first. Not only does it bring the fun to a complete halt but it’s a real pisser that almost ruins the whole damn thing.

Luke, completely disillusioned and wracked with remorse decides to hang up his clover-etched pistols forever and settle down with saloon girl Belle (Alexandra Lamy) and take up farming, just like his old man did. Hearing the news, Billy the Kid (Michaël Youn) and Jesse James (Melvil Poupaud) show up vying to be the first man to take down the now no lo quiero pistolero, Lucky Luke. Also arriving on the scene is Calamity Jane (Sylvie Testud) whose crush on Luke leads her to saving his bacon from the ruffians who are now taking advantage of his demoralized state. See? I told you it was French. In spite of this misfortunate miscue, there’s still plenty of fun to be had before the final act. Youn and Poupaud are having a blast running with their characters; Billy being almost literally a kid at heart, complete with lolly pops and childish behavior, and Jesse (dressed up like a reject from TOMBSTONE) quoting Shakespeare at the drop of a shell casing.

The big twist at the end will come as no surprise to anyone, but the finale is so incredibly stylish with one of the most amazing sets I have ever seen on film, that you won’t really mind. Which is what this film is really all about for me. Sure, if I had grown up with the comics and considered them a national treasure, I’d probably find plenty to bitch about. As it is, it's still a lot of fun aside from the rather ill-advised fumble in the middle of the film.

Luke’s meeting with Pat Poker is a perfect example of what this film does right. Oozing with atmospheric smoke, light and shadow Luke and Poker trade off tricks in the sherriff’s office to the amazement of the on-looking prisoners. Finally Poker fans a deck of cards, throws them in the air and shoots down all four kings. Luke whips out a dollar bill throws it up in the air, fires one shot and four plugged quarters fall down on the desk. The film has so many goofy sight gags in between the character bits and the stunning visuals, that it’s hard to walk away unimpressed. They actually pull off a rack focus shot that goes through four fields of focus in a non-linear sequence. Did that make any sense at all? Well, trust me, it’s pretty amazing. So yes, it’s technically gobsmacking, trips on its own spurs, but at the same time still comes up aces, or at least a full house anyway.

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