The Jack Bull

THE JACK BULL. 1999

Director: John Badham

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl



John Cusack plays a good man forced by injustice & his own loony obsession to become an outlaw vigilante in Wyoming Territory, in a script by his father adapted from a European hero tale by Heinrich von Kleist.

The moral ambiguity of even the "good" guys makes this an adult western, & scene for scene it attempts to be deadly serious. The story presents obsessive retribution against evil, followed by the embracing of the ultimate consequences for one's illegal pursuit of vengeance, & nearly reflects a samurai ethos.

Yet Cusack for all his talent never quite registers as really a man of the pioneer west; the world he moves through, & his performance within that world, all come down a bit flat.

John Goodman turns in a better performance as a coldhearted judge with deep devotion to "the law," whether or not laws result in complete justice. His is the most complex & convincing character here, but he's not the central character & he cannot carry the film to success. That was Cusack's job, & he remained the pretty-boy dressed up in a cowboy suit making a movie, never the gritty anti-hero the script required.

Occasionally it was almost farcical in heaping tragedy upon hoky tragedy. Moments intended to be tearjerker in effect inspire rolling eyes. Miranda Otto as the wife gets run down by horse & wagon in a sequence so badly staged it was about as emotionally distressing as Kenny getting killed on South Park.

John C. McGinley as the ranch-hand had one costume & one make-up design to define his character as covered in dirt start to finish (he doesn't even take a bath when he goes to see a friend hanged). He was only a character design rather than a character performance. Though he was whiskered & grimed & playing it for the sadness factor, he never ceased to be the mean doctor from Scrubs & he kept making me giggle.

Native American actor Rodney A. Grant plays the sort of "good" Indian who dies to help a white man get justice. He largely overcomes the Romantic Racism of the stereotype & turns in a subtle & effective performance, but like Goodman's fine performance, it wasn't a large enough role to make up for the tepidity of Cusack's inability to convince.

Still & all, given how few serious westerns are even attempted nowadays, this one's as good as any seen for a couple of years. It's a noble try & should please fans of westerns.

copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl



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