Judge Patrick Rogers always kinda wishes he was Canadian. I guess New Hampshire is close enough.
"He hunted his best friend's killer—while he hunted him"
It's rare that you see a Canadian film, let alone one that wears its nationality on its sleeve. Sure, some of your favorite directors and actors are secretly Canadian but it's rare to see a fully Canadian production considering the size of the country's film industry and its output. Quebec's industry has carved out a strong name for itself over the last few decades but, as is always the case in that great Quebecois fashion, it's an industry that would scoff if it was anthropomorphized and then called "Canadian." But here stands Alien Thunder, a Canadian pseudo-Western film, not from Quebec, about a man avenging the death of his friend and a cow. It's strange and off-putting in the most Canadian of ways.
The film's national origin is both its saving grace and its death knell.
Facts of the Case
Dan Candy (Donald Sutherland, Kelly's Heroes) is sent to talk to Cree native Almighty Voice (Gordon Tootoosis, Legends of the Fall) for killing a cow without the express permission of the RCMP. Before Candy knows it though, Almighty Voice has killed Candy's partner (Kevin McCarthy, The Howling) and stolen off into the Canadian wilderness. It is up to Candy, against the wishes of his superiors, to track down the fugitive and bring him to justice. But it isn't long before Candy starts to feel like maybe the tables have turned and he's the one getting hunted.
There's something satisfyingly primal about watching a man having to fight for his life as he's hunted by another human being. It speaks to certain urges better left unsaid. And that's why it's a subject that has been written about and brought to the big screen countless times. Ernest B. Schoedsack's timeless masterpiece The Most Dangerous Game and John Woo's decadently cheesy Hard Target are two great examples of this hunter-becomes-the-hunted sub-genre, and they're also two films that are on complete opposite ends of the spectrum, both in plotting and style, further illustrating just how versatile and varied this established narrative can get. Alien Thunder is a much more limp affair than you're probably used to from the genre. The film chooses to eschew the standard tropes of the genre—suspense, action, and bloodthirsty revenge—to focus more on the duality of man (always a fun and generic motif) and the dangerous nature of prejudice. It's always admirable for a film to try and recapitulate the expectations of its genre or, at the very least, attempt something more profound than what the viewer is used to. It just doesn't work here, even though the film has an endearing sense of Canadian quirk and awkwardness.
But it's hard to sit here and lay the blame on any one aspect of the film as the thing that makes the whole affair boring and ironically trite, because there are so many little things wrong throughout that compound the sense of mediocrity. Be it the direction, photography, acting or dialogue; it's all really kind of crappy. The catalyst for the narrative—the killing of a cow without the right permission—is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to show the injustice of the Canadian government and the relegation of an ethnic minority to servitude and irrelevance. It's a theme that's been done so much better in many different films that it's hard to recommend Alien Thunder because it never does anything with the subtext, constantly selling it short. The film also doesn't work as a suspense or action film—two staples of the genre—because almost nothing happens in the film besides Sutherland bitching to, or about, this and that. There's no excitement, suspense, build-up, nor pay off.
It doesn't help that Sutherland turns in one of the most wildly erratic performances of his career as the vengeful yet affable Dan Candy. The actor is trying his hardest to do a rugged Canadian accent and it's just terrible. He sounds like an American actor, a bad one at that, attempting to do a caricature of a Canadian accent…but Sutherland is Canadian to begin with! The motivation for the character and his quest to avenge the death of his partner at the hands of Almighty Voice is muddled beyond belief. You're never quite sure what Candy's intentions are or why he feels so strongly about it all. One second Sutherland's attempting to be an action hero and the next he's bumbling his way through some pseudo-intellectual monologue about nature and responsibility or how he's been wronged. It's all so painful. And it also doesn't help that Gordon Tootoosi and Chief Dan George (The Outlaw Josey Wales) turn in two performances of marginal effectiveness purely because of their shallowness. They're two roles that could have some real meat behind them. Almighty Voice is a character that the film wants you to relate to because of his desperation and fierce individuality in the face oppression, and yet the film also makes you despise him for murdering a relatively innocent man. What we get instead is a generic performance with sparse dialogue and an even sparser point, all tied together with a pretty bow of ethnic insensitivity.
Tying the faults of the film together is the directing effort by Claude Fournier (The Book of Eve) who also acts as the film's cinematographer. Fournier had great scenic vistas to work with. The rugged terrain of Western Canada is as beautiful as it is daunting and this should show in the film, especially considering the genre. Instead, we get muddled shot compositions that do no justice to the location or the material. Fournier has a chance to make a Western film that redefines the kind of iconography that we associate with the genre, and he wastes it. It would have been interesting to have put this in the hands of Robert Altman (McCabe & Mrs. Miller) or Terrence Mallick (Days of Heaven) to see what they could do with such an opportunity but that's just a useless pipe dream.
The film is what it is…underwhelming and a waste
However, the most surprising thing about this DVD from Scorpion Releasing is the video transfer. It's an HD master taken straight from the original camera negatives. It's surprising because it looks damn good even though everything about the case for the DVD and the trailers that precede the film look terrible. It's an incredibly strong transfer with a vivid sense of clarity and a robust grain structure. The English mono track is boring and lacks any sort of character. All the sounds get thrown together and blended into one lump. There are also no special features to speak of on this disc besides three trailers for other Scorpion releases that look about as good as expired milk. The case also says that the new HD master is a special feature, but I don't ever consider the video transfer on the disc a special feature, especially when it's the only one available to watch.
There's a reason you've probably never heard of Alien Thunder, because it's an incredibly mediocre film from a sub-genre which rarely produces anything worthwhile these days. It's like a painfully sentimental Canadian version of Death Hunt without the action or suspense.
Guilty, though that transfer is damn fine looking.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Scorpion Releasing
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