Fox // 1993 // 111 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // July 7th, 2011
The untold story of the Wild West.
Mario Van Peebles made a big splash in 1991 when his directorial debut, New Jack City, created a buzz about him as a filmmaker and became a kind of new classic. His follow-up, Posse -- a western told from the point of view of African Americans -- failed to capitalize on that hype, and Van Peebles never became the successful and possibly important director that many thought he might.
Now, Posse arrives on Blu-ray so you, too, can answer the question: What went wrong?
During the Spanish-American Civil War, corrupt and evil General Graham (Billy Zane, The Phantom) orders a group of plainclothes members of the 10th cavalry to rob a shipment of Spanish gold. Led by the stoic Jesse Lee (Mario Van Peebles, Highlander: The Final Dimension), the group is eventually betrayed by Graham and takes off west for New Orleans, where Jesse Lee plans to kill the men who murdered his father. With a gang that now includes former prisoner Little J (Stephen Baldwin, The Usual Suspects), slick gambler Father Time (Big Daddy Kane), the hulking Obobo (Tiny Lister, Jr., The Dark Knight) and Graham's former aide, the sniveling Weezie (Charles Lane, True Identity), Jessie Lee heads for Freemanville, a town populated almost entirely by freed slaves, and prepares to take his revenge.
True story: when I first started writing for DVD Verdict in 2004, I requested to review a movie called Posse thinking it was the 1993 revisionist western directed by and starring Mario Van Peebles. Imagine my surprise when the disc came in the mail and it was actually a 1975 movie directed by and starring Kirk Douglas that actually ended up being really great -- the very definition of a pleasant surprise.
Now here it is 2011 and I've finally got my chance to review Van Peebles' Posse. Truth be told, I was better off seven years ago.
I'm a fan of Van Peebles' directorial debut, 1991's genre throwback New Jack City. That's a crime movie that feels genuinely hip and fresh without ignoring its exploitation roots. Though there are moments of Posse that seem to be going for the same thing, Van Peebles can't help getting a little bogged down in pretentious messaging. He clearly wants Posse to open viewers' eyes to the story of black cowboys who have been ignored by both history and Hollywood for so long (a bunch of closing text actually says as much), but just can't help himself from making a movie that's trashy and violent and often very entertaining. Unfortunately, those two movies butt up against one another in a way that doesn't totally work -- it leaves long, slow stretches of messaging between the action scenes, and the action scenes undermine some of the movie's more noble intentions. Van Peebles needed to commit to really being one or the other.
I don't mind a violent action movie with its own political agenda -- many of the best grindhouse movies of the '70s are guilty of the same thing -- but there's something about the way those elements are mixed in Posse that makes it so that they negate one another. The movie means well, but can't decide if it wants to be an important message movie that finally pays tribute to the long forgotten black cowboy or if it would simply rather be a violent, Leone-esque western that happens to feature a mostly black cast. When it leans towards the latter, Posse actually works; I have a feeling that if Van Peebles had just embraced that conceit, the movie would still feel a good deal more progressive than when he wants to hammer us over the head with just how progressive it is. Still, the action scenes are staged well and Van Peebles still has plenty of his flashy, film school camerawork left over from New Jack City to give the movie a lively, visceral feel in its best moments.
The performances, from a wide range of talented actors to familiar character actors from the past to gimmicky stunt-cast musicians and rappers, are all over the place. I get that it was part of an aesthetic that Van Peebles was trying to develop -- it had worked well for him in New Jack City -- but it backfires somewhat in Posse. Van Peebles himself is appropriately stoic and cool in the lead, but he's surrounded by some performers who are either wooden (like Big Daddy Kane) or incredibly, spastically over the top (Stephen Baldwin and director Charles Lane, both of whom give overacting a bad name). Billy Zane, as one of the movie's villains, is perhaps more ridiculous here than in even Titanic -- in the words of my friend JB, he "lacks only a mustache to twirl." It's hard for us to believe that Jesse Lee and his gang are up against a real threat when their enemies demonstrate all the wickedness of a cartoon character. It's clear, though, that Van Peebles is a fan of exploitation movies, and it's a lot of fun to see faces like Paul Bartel, Pam Grier, Isaac Hayes and Van Peebles' own father Melvin (he of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song) show up in small roles.
Posse arrives on Blu-ray in a decent-looking HD transfer courtesy of Fox. The 2.35:1-framed, AVC-encoded image is presented in full 1080p and looks quite good for the most part. Though there is some occasional softness visible, it's a source issue and not a result of the transfer; slight banding is visible, but never distractingly so, and fine detail is pretty good throughout. Because Van Peebles has borrowed so heavily from the Sergio Leone school of filmmaking, the facial textures that come off the best. In many shots, you can practically count the individual stubble and beads of sweat on the actors' faces. You know, if you were so inclined. While fans and purists may be disappointed at the lack of a full 5.1 lossless audio track, take heart in the fact that the DTS-HD 2.0 surround track is surprisingly good. Not only is the dialogue clear and the gunfire appropriately thunderous, but the track boasts an impressive amount of dimensionality. Pay close attention during some of the busier crowd scenes and you'll hear a lot of detail in the way different sounds are separated in each channel.
The only bonus feature included is the original theatrical trailer, which is at least presented in HD.
There are things to like about Posse, and it represents an honest attempt at making a real live, six-shooting western at a time in the '90s when those hard largely gone out of style. Unfortunately, though, the parts don't gel into a whole that works, and the entire endeavor is more interesting as a curiosity these days than anything else. You're better off tracking down the '75 movie of the same name.
A mixed bag.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 111 Minutes
Release Year: 1993
MPAA Rating: Rated R