Review – Johnny Blaze And A Firestarter (“The Old Way”)

Take The Outlaw Josey Wales, Unforgiven, True Grit, and a smattering of several of Eastwood’s “Man With No Name” spaghetti Westerns, and you’ll get this straight-forward, gritty simple tale of Western revenge, but this one has Nick Cage and a former Firestarter!

His name is Colton Briggs (Cage) and you best be running when you hear that name, ’cause he’s a ruthless, cold-hearted, unfeeling, lethal gunman. After his last killing spree in town, we fast-forward 20 years to see a domesticated Briggs now settled down, married to a strong, loving wife named Ruth (Kerry Knuppe), and has an emotionally void but smart 10-year-old daughter, Brooke (Ryan Kiera Armstrong). Life is good for this new Briggs and his mercantile store in town. . . until the bad guys show up! After 20 years, James McAllister (Noah LeGros), the son of the man Briggs killed, pops up with his henchman: Big Mike (Abraham Benrubi), grizzled old prospector-like Eustice (Clint Howard), and trigger-happy Boots (Shiloh Fernandez).

After they kill Ruth, they take off, leaving Marshal Jarret (Nick Searcy) to inform (okay, he begs) Briggs not to seek revenge and let justice take its course. Yeah. Right. Taking Brooke in tow, together they strike off to hunt down McAllister and his men for some payback, all the while teaching his young daughter the ways of gun, tracking people, and how to steal a horse. She, in turn, tries to get her father to not murder every single person he sees and gets him to open up about who he is and how he became the ruthless, fearsome killer everyone knows him to be. A wonderful, key scene between Cage and Armstrong that shows off both their talents. Anyway, McAllister and his gang hightail it for Mexico and wait for Briggs to show up, but this father/daughter team have already made plans to take these baddies out.

This is only Carl W. Lucas’ fourth screenplay, as his others are the VOD forgettable variety. And yes, much of the dialogue spoken has that often clichéd old folksy jargon you’ve heard in every Western before, however, there are many moments of genuine surprise with the characters speaking eloquent and even moving lines. This is what sold me, as I’m a huge fan of the Western genre. Sure, the plot is very simple, an A to B to C revenge story that ends with heartbreak but it deserves a look purely for the acting. Cage does a wicked combo of Eastwood meets John Wick but gets upstaged by Armstrong who was so brilliant in last year’s disastrous remake of Firestarter. She is an old soul inside a pre-teen and can deliver a performance that is remarkable.    

Carl Searcy as the old town Marshal is especially effective, moving, laid-back, and heartfelt. Seriously, I can see Brooke and the Marshall in another film together (sequel?); they have great chemistry on screen. The villains are all stock-in-trade baddies with Clint Howard being the stand-out as he channels Gabby Hayes from the old Roy Rogers TV show. Director Brett Donowho is, like Lucas, someone you never heard of before as his films have been banished to the land of the VOD. It’s pity, though, as he got a nice, easy, and simple camerawork that isn’t cluttered with fancy shots. It’s clean, meticulous, and gets the job done. The scene in the Mexican bar even reminded me of Tarantino’s bar scene in Once/Hollywood with Leonardo DiCaprio; well-shot and gripping.

At a scant 95 minutes, it won’t waste your time with filler scenes that go nowhere or useless, drawn-out fluff scenes. And if you’re one of those people that likes controversies in movies, then you’ll love this little tidbit: they filmed this movie in 2021, where the guns were handled by Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, the same person who handled the deadly gun on the set of Rust that ultimately killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins. On the set of The Old Way, Hannah accidentally discharged a weapon without warning, causing Nick Cage to walk off the set! Yeah, that happened. Controversies, aside, if you’re a fan of Westerns (or Nick Cage) like me, I recommended this one! 

**Now showing in selected theaters

Unforgiven (1992)

What’s a retired cold-blooded killer with a family to do when his reputation is called back to do “one last job as a matter of honor”? That’s the case of this brutally honest and thought-provoking shoot-’em-up by the master of Westerns, Clint Eastwood.

It’s the 1880’s in Wyoming and William Munny (Eastwood) used to be that nasty killer and bandit but swore off it since he got married and had kids. But it’s been years and his reputation follows him no matter where he goes. A young braggart kid, calling himself the Scofield Kid (Jamiz Woolvelt) visits Munny seeking his help to kill some cowboys who horribly disfigured prostitute Delilah Fitzgerald (Anna Levine) in the town of Big Whiskey. The prostitutes there put up a bounty of $1000, y’see, and Munny, who initially refused to help, finally accepts since his farm is failing and he needs the money.

Munny recruits his old retired gunfighter friend, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) to help. Meanwhile, British-born gunfighter, English Bob (Richard Harris), arrives to collect the bounty and meets the egotistical and savage sheriff, “Little” Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman). Little Bill and his deputies disarm Bob, and beat him savagely, hoping to discourage other would-be assassins. All this is recorded by Bob’s traveling companion, biographer, and writer, W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), who decides to stay and write about Bill, who has impressed him with his tales of old gunfights.

Soon Munny, Logan, and the Kid arrive later during a rain storm, but Munny is sitting alone in the saloon when Little Bill and his deputies arrive and beat him half-to death. Recovered three days later, the guys ambush and kill the cowboys but it sours Logan so he decides to return home. But as Munny and the Kid go to collect the bounty, Little Bill grabs and tortures Logan to death. The Kid heads back to Kansas to deliver the reward money to Munny’s children and Logan’s wife, while an outraged Munny returns to town to take revenge on Little Bill in a wild killing spree. David Webb Peoples (12 Monkeys, Blade Runner) knows how to write a script (it was nominated for Best Screenplay) and this was one of his best. A carefully constructed and ghastly look at the way the old West might have looked without all the glamour and glitz. You can practically smell the hay and cow pies while watching the movie with Eastwood’s signature direction and style that he’s honed throughout the decades.

This ain’t no Silverado or A Million Ways To Die In The West, but a bare-bones, gritty, and raw Western that hammers the point of killers and assassins-for-hire and what it means to kill someone in real-time. Not just those ‘screen deaths’ where the bad guy just shoots a bunch of people and that’s that, but the emotional gut feeling of one pulling the trigger. Eastwood is at his grizzled best, along with Freeman, Hackman, and Harris; the vets of the screen. Woolvett is okay, but can’t match the intensity and panache of the others, sad to say, and is miscast. Still, it’s a great Western right up there with newer versions of The Magnificent Seven and True Grit.

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