If you're a guy and you haven't at some point had the dream of becoming an outlaw who takes down government banks and rolls with either a wicked car or a massive horse then...well...you're weird. Let's just be honest: being an outlaw is just super cool. Robbing from the rich and corrupt, taking out bad guys (even though you're kind of a bad guy yourself), and living outside of the law are all exciting ideas and make for even more exciting men (and women). We gravitate toward those characters in movies because they are always charismatic, fun, and give off an air of freedom despite (and perhaps because of) always being just one step ahead of certain death at the hands of stodgy law makers and guys who don't have the stones to be outlaws themselves (I'm talking to you, Pinkertons!). Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is one of my very favorite films, the rare "classic" that plays just as well today as I imagine it did when it opened in 1969. The idea, then, of an alternative history in which Butch and Sundance escape the doom that awaited them at the end of that film (and in real life, I guess) is beyond interesting to me. I saw a blurb about Blackthorn a couple of months ago and immediately knew I would seek it out. I'm awfully glad I did.
20 years after the standoff in which he and the Sundance Kid supposedly died, an aging Butch Cassidy (Sam Shepard) still lives in Bolivia, laying low and breaking wild horses for wealthy riders. He has a good life but one that is a good deal quieter than he experienced in his outlaw days and that lack of action wears on him. So when he comes in contact with Eduardo Apodaca (Eduardo Noriega), a Spanish engineer with a plan to steal thousands from a mining company, he senses an opportunity not only to relive the glory days but to buy his way back home. The heist turns south, however, when it becomes clear that Noriega isn't who he says he is, forcing Cassidy into circumstances he may not be able to overcome.
Blackthorn (which is the name Cassidy goes by) is a slowburn that moves methodically through both the narrative and the Bolivian landscape, providing action in short, contained bursts rather than excessively throughout the run time. Part of the story is told in the form of flashbacks that fill in the blanks between BCSK and while these aren't the best parts of the film, they re-engage the audience with the Cassidy storyline and essentially create an immediate rooting interest in the character. This is a big part of what makes the film work. It progresses exactly the way a Western should when it concerns itself with an aging protagonist and that makes for a rich and intriguing narrative. (And by the way, can we please have more Westerns, Hollywood? They don't have to be big budget entries like Cowboys and Aliens, just simple little films like this and Meek's Cutoff. More of that please.) In addition, the behind-the-camera work on Blackthorn is excellent. The shot selection is simple yet purposeful and the settings are well-chosen. The cinematography is outstanding, highlighting the tremendous and beautiful geographical diversity of South America. The landscape is in many ways the premier supporting character.
But as you might expect, Blackthorn depends almost entirely on the performance of Shepard and the man delivers magnificently. Shepard is one of the greatest actors of his generation and yet he is often overlooked when that conversation comes up and I am one of the guilty who has too often neglected to mention his name. I can't think of a single actor who I would prefer to play the aging Cassidy and he completely lives up to that statement. I think it would have been very easy to play Cassidy as some sort of knock-off of Paul Newman's interpretation of the character. Instead, Shepard makes him wholly his own with just a hint of reminiscence for the iconic original. The years have taken their toll on Cassidy but Shepard never makes him come off as bitter or even overly tired so much as hardened and slightly more crotchety. Cassidy shows the physical rust that would accumulate during a 20 year hibernation but he displays the wits and reflexes that make men like himself so exciting. There are a few moments in which I found myself thinking, "The guy still has it!" the same way I would if I was watching an aging slugger take one monster swing that sends a ball 450 feet up into the stands. It's a powerful yet understated performance that has reminded me of Shepard's true greatness. I won't be forgetting his value again anytime soon and the same should be said for Blackthorn as a whole.
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