Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenplay: Dennis Hackin
Producers: Dennis Hackin, Neil Dobrofsky
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Sondra Locke, Scatman Crothers
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 116 min
During my many years as a film buff, I've always had a stange relationship with Clint Eastwood. As an actor, I've never thought him that convincing and occasionally he's downright wooden. But Eastwood has an undeniable presence which, given the right role, can be spellbinding. His famous performances as the Man with No Name in Sergio Leone's superb Spaghetti Western trilogy (A Fist Full of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) were the stuff of legend, making Eastwood a superstar without requiring him to do much acting at all. Yet occasionally, Eastwood can pull a suprisingly impressive performance out of the bag, such as his downbeat Oscar nominated turn in Unforgiven or his curmudgeonly old man in Gran Torino.
Eastwood's maddening inconsistency as a performer also characterises his work as a director. Since he started working behind the camera in the early 70s, Eastwood's diverse range of projects have been all over the map in terms of quality and style. When he's at the top of his game, Eastwood is a superbly reliable director and his masterpiece count is surprisingly high. He has been responsible for some of the greatest post-60s Westerns (High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Unforgiven) but has also scored big in several other genres, notably with gripping dramas like Mystic River and Changeling. It is with two genres in particular that Eastwood seems to come unstuck. One is the action thriller. Although, along with the Western, this is the genre Eastwood is best known for starring in, his directorial attempts in the genre tend to be flat, uninspiring and silly (1990's The Rookie being the prime example). Despite their shortcomings, however, Eastwood always seems quite comfortable acting in the action film genre with which he is so familiar. It is the other genre that sees Eastwood most embarrassingly and consistently out of his depth and it is thankfully a genre he has been wise enough to largely avoid as both performer and director. The genre is comedy.
To say Eastwood is completely devoid of comic talent is unfair. The Man with No Name and Harry Callahan both incorporate the occasional, effectively dry quip into their personalities and Eastwood's crochety old man in Gran Torino is often hilarious. It is when he attempts to throw himself whole-heartedly into a primarily comedic role that Eastwood is truly excruciating. Nevertheless, two of his highest grossing films as an actor were the daft fist-fights and orangutans comedies Every Which Way But Loose and its sequel, Any Which Way You Can. Perhaps inspired by this success, Eastwood made his one and only comedy as a director, Bronco Billy.
Oddly enough, Bronco Billy is a film Eastwood frequently names as one of his favourites amongst his own directorial work. Apparently the film had one of the friendliest and most fun on-set atmospheres Eastwood had ever experienced and these happy memories have obviously seeped into his appreciation of the finished product. Surprisingly, however, critical response to Bronco Billy was also largely positive. Critics were amused by Eastwood's flimsy parody of his own film persona but implications that Bronco Billy has anything profound to say about the death of the cowboy tradition and the American Western are not backed up by Dennis Hackin's spectacularly appaling script or Eastwood's broad direction.
Bronco Billy tells the story of a run down travelling circus with a cowboy theme and its ragbag collection of ex-convict acts, lead by moralistic cowboy Bronco Billy (Eastwood). As they travel from town to town and struggle to keep their heads above water, the performers cross paths with Antoinette Lily (Sondra Locke), a spoiled heiress who has to marry someone before her 30th birthday in order to inherit a fortune. She fulfils this contract with the exasperated John Arlington (Geoffrey Lewis), who she then mistreats to the point that he disappears with all her money and her newly-fixed car, leaving Antoinette stranded in the middle of nowhere. Attempting to find her way back to civilization, Antoinette turns to Bronco Billy's Wild West Show for help and relunctantly becomes another in a long line of Billy's assistants in his shooting and knife throwing act.
Even without going into all the other silly plot developments and unlikely coincidences that make up the rest of Bronco Billy, you already have a sense of its tone; A shapeless collection of vignettes made of stitched together cliches and unexpected events without the necessary character development required to arrive at them. Eastwood struggles to bring some gravitas to the proceedings, aiming for an examination of the dwindling popularity of the cowboy archetype that made him famous. This is clearest in a scene in which Billy and his cohorts, desperate for money, decide to carry out an old-fashioned train robbery. Ultimately, they discover that modern day trains are resistant to old-school Western bandits and give up. It's an idea with promise but loses everything in execution. The decision to carry out the robbery is arrived at too easily for a supposedly moralistic, self-appointed role model and the revelation that Billy's gang are all ex-convicts is not justification enough and is very awkwardly tacked on close to the train robbery scene by way of explanation.
The train-robbing scene is not the only unmotivated, unlikely or superfluous plot element. Others include an evil lawyer and step-mother who have a couple of scenes and then vanish with little comeuppance, a phoney instituionalisation which leads to a ludicrous coincidence, and a giant circus tent made entirely of American flags. Hackin's script seems to be aiming for a sort of small-town fantasy that we're not supposed to take entirely seriously but he doesn't sell the notion enough to excuse the risible narrative development and his attempt to balance it with wistful meditations on lost legends and forgotten men makes for an uneasy mixture.
Aware of the fact that Bronco Billy is not meant to be taken totally seriously, Eastwood plays up the silliness by encouraging his cast to give the broadest of performances. Eastwood's central performance is not utterly disasterous. He at least has a good time with it, even if Billy never seems like a real person. Far worse is Sondra Locke, Eastwood's beau at the time, with whom he starred in several films including the brilliant The Outlaw Josey Wales. Locke seems even more uncomfortable with comedy than Eastwood and is clearly only involved because of Eastwood being at the reins. Her transformation from a spoiled brat whose selfishness reaches levels of pantomime villainy into a soft-hearted lover of small-town folksiness is completely without depth. Her eleventh-hour suicide attempt is the film's worst moment and comes with even less build-up than the train robbery. Eastwood attempts to play her aborted overdose for a laugh and the result is one of Bronco Billy's most uncomfortably misjudged moments. In recognition of her efforts, Locke was nominated for a prestigious Golden Razzie award for Worst Actress. The rest of the supporting cast are mostly completely forgettable, other than a vividly bad Scatman Crothers, whose alcoholic Doc Lynch is all half-hearted wisecracks and cartoon double-takes.
Eastwood should be applauded for attempting something different and, despite his apparent love of the film, for recognising that he should never try this particular path again. Bronco Billy is a total mess of a film which doesn't seem to know where its own plot is going or who its target audience might be. All Bronco Billy does know is that it wants to comment on changing times and the death of the old west but in its struggle to do this, Hackin's script eschews almost everything else required to make a film enjoyable. There's potential in the kernel of an idea behind Bronco Billy but it would take a better script, a more suitable cast and a director with more experience of comedy to draw out the Capra-esque ideal to which is seems to aspire.