Back in the 90’s if you needed a distinctive Native American badass the choice would be obvious. You’d call Wes Studi. Now that might be an unfamiliar name to those not steeped in action cinema lore. But he’s one of those guys you’ve seen in loads of things loads of times. You’ll know the face. Most famously playing killer period Natives in Dances with Wolves and Last of the Mohicans, you might also recognize him as Sagat in Street Fighter or one of Pacino’s crew in Heat. He was even one of those blue dudes in Avatar. Cut to 2018 and he’s still at it. But now he’s old. And Hostiles reverses the roles. Instead of a scalp-collecting Cherokee brave he’s a silver-flecked chief just looking for some peace.
Studi is Chief Yellow Hawk, a former Cheyenne warlord who has grown old and sick in captivity by the Americans. As a gesture of good will by his captors, he’s granted the opportunity to return to his homeland of Montana some 800 miles away. The guy to get him there in one piece is Captain Joseph J Blocker (Christian Bale – The Prestige). People call him Blocker or Captain and his initial is never really discussed. But I’ll tell you for nothing that it doesn’t stand for Jolly. He’s one mean fucker with a kill list as long as the entrails of one of the poor dudes he gutted during the Indian Wars. And he’s very familiar with Yellow Hawk’s work. Several of his old buddies met a grizzly end to the Cheyenne badass. There’s no love lost there.
As a killer of Native men, women and children, Blocker is a bit of a hypocrite. When quizzed about his own complicity in the atrocities of the war he’s all “just doing my job sir”, but he views Yellow Hawk’s reign of terror as something akin to a biblical event. To Blocker he’s the scourge of Sodom and Gomorrah and the plague of Egypt all personified into one frail old dude. Suffice to say he’s not thrilled about escorting the chief and his family on a pleasure ride back home. It’s only when Colonel Biggs (Stephen Lang – Tombstone) threatens to pull Blockers retirement pay that he actually agrees to do it.
Let’s rewind a bit though as the film actually begins in some idyllic cabin where Rosalee Quaid (Rosamund Pike – Doom) is teaching her young kids to read. Outside, her hubby Wesley spies an approaching Comanche raiding party and opens fire. They quickly arrow him, scalp him, then proceed to burn down the house. Rosalee and the kids run for their lives out the back door. But it’s no good. Each of the kids are shot down by the Comanche and even her newborn baby is caught in the crossfire. Hiding in some rocks like the Predator only Rosalee manages to survive. But it’s pretty brutal. Most films don’t begin with the wholesale slaughter of family’s, especially kiddies. It’s just a shame it doesn’t maintain this kind of pace throughout. The delicious pessimism remains, however.
Back with the boys and the first real encounter between Yellow Hawk and Blocker is a telling one; only a few miles out from the Fort and Blocker halts everything. He has Yellow Hawk get down from his horse and hands him a knife. Telling him to come at him, he just wants an excuse to shoot him down, to finish the job like he should have done years ago. Yellow Hawk ain’t stupid though and doesn’t really want to fight, so just kind of shrugs. That kind of mentality is old news for the chief now. All he wants is some peace. The attitude pisses Blocker off something proper. Looks like he’s gonna have to go all the way to Montana after all. Good job he’s not going alone.
Accompanied by his grizzled old buddy Sergeant Metz (Rory Cochrane – Black Mass) and fresh faced West Point graduate Lieutenant Kidder (Jesse Plemons – also Black Mass), at least Blocker will have some solid men beside him in case any Red Indian shit hits the fan. Or so we think. Metz is more burnt out than Blocker, and is closer to turning a gun on himself than any raving Native warbastard. There’s a few other faces among the crowd that we all sort of know are gonna die, go missing or are otherwise forgettable. Best not get attached (don’t worry, you won’t).
After a few days on the road and they come across the still smoldering ruins of the Quaid homestead. When Rosalee is located and brought back to the camp she naturally reacts with horror at the accompanied Natives, chains or no chains. This kind of solidifies Blockers continued hatred of Yellow Hawk and his kin. We also get to see a sensitive side to him as he gently treats the grieving mother whose treading a knife edge of murderous insanity and bloody suicidal impulses. It kind of demonstrates that he’s not a totally bad dude at heart, despite all the murdering and racism.
They obviously can’t leave her here, so they bury her kids and husband and take her along, intending to drop her at the next town. But there’s a problem. Yellow Hawk knows the Comanches are still in the area. They will harry and assault Blocker and his men every step of the way, like Crocodile Dundee did to them Columbian gangsters in the sequel. The only way to survive the peril would be to go on the offensive; to track them down and kill them, savage dog style. Naturally Blocker suspects shenanigans. But he’s smart enough to know that the Cheyenne ain’t got no love for the Comanches either. It’s a Crips and Bloods thing, with bad blood running through their veins akin to JCVD and Steven Seagal.
Shit gets real when they take a pop at Blocker and his men. One of the younger recruits is killed. Yellow Hawk once again asks Blocker to remove the chains from him and his son, Black Hawk, so that they may help. This time he reluctantly agrees. Is he going to regret it?
At this point the way I saw this film going was that they’d all be lead by Rosalee, Blocker and Yellow Hawk in a quest for bloody revenge, whereby Yellow Hawk and his family would assist using their secretive Native voodoo in taking down the rogue Comanches. During the perilous journey everyone would learn to forgive and respect each other. I didn’t see it being much more complicated then that. It doesn’t need to be. Shit, I’d love to see that movie. Hostiles isn’t that movie.
My main beef with Hostiles is that it’s weighed down too much by Christian Bale’s character and director Scott Cooper (Black Mass) trying to instill the film with what I’m gonna label “greatness”. I’ll get to that in a sec, but first let’s deal with Bale. He’s a top actor. I won’t dispute that. But there’s too much of him here. Too many scenes of him looking glum or introspective or firing guns into the sky and shit. His first proper scene when he’s getting his orders goes on way too long. I know it’s building up his and Studi’s character, but there’s only so many times I can be told that some dude is a total badass before I have to see him prove it.
It’s pretty clear what they’re gunning for right from the beginning; Yellow Hawk, old and dying is sort of at peace with his life and his actions as a younger man. Blocker is the opposite. He’s burned up by all the bad stuff he’s seen and done and Yellow Hawk serves as the focal point for this angst. The long and perilous journey is clearly meant to bond them as characters and to make Blocker understand that they weren’t too different after all. And that is pretty much how it ends. But for every 1 minute that Studi is on screen you’ll get ten of Bale doing stuff and lets be honest it’s mainly him looking pensive. There just isn’t enough balance of the characters. There’s probably maybe three interactions they actually have together. It just doesn’t make sense. I got the feeling like they were doing some shady old Hollywood trick, like maybe they filmed Bale and Studi separately for some reason like scheduling conflicts or something.
All manner of shit does happen on the trail. Even Ben Foster, that dude from the Mechanic remake turns up. And even when more and more people seem to be dying and getting killed, we drift further and further from the overall concept, that spine of the movie. Pike, who is magnificent here, sort of warms to Yellow Hawk’s family quickly, too quickly, again in a clunky sort of way, as if some scenes were cut out or never filmed. Heck, maybe they were shot, but relegated to the editor’s floor in favour of more Bale moments, discarded like used tissues.
Equally, Studi really adds weight to the film and his performance, while quiet, lends a grand sense of pathos to the story. We’ve grown up with him in the role of the aggressor, as the the primary bad Native guy and now he’s the introspective and peaceful chief. The irony is he’s still considered that blood thirsty warrior. Shackled, dying, but still full of pride, there is an inescapable feeling of loss emanating from Yellow Hawk. Studi should be celebrated here. Instead there’s just not enough of him. Plus I think it’s a bit anti-climactic to build up Yellow Hawk as such a warrior and a badass for us to never see him doing anything. Yeah he’s old, but he’s not beyond cracking skulls when he needs to. It would have been really cool to see him dispatch one of the bad guys with such veteran ease as he himself was killed in Last of the Mohicans.
I’ve no trouble with the concept of Hostiles. I love a good rivals-becoming-friends film. Rocky 3, The Rock, Midnight Run. Yeah, they’re all a bit low end when it comes to being meaningful, but you totally buy the emerging comradeship between the leads. If you’re wanting something a bit more weighty, how about The Last Samurai? It can be done.
As I’ve mentioned before I don’t know if there was any production issues or that things were hijacked by Bale or someone. Maybe Cooper was trying to steer clear of a predictable story arc. But hey, they’re predictable because we’ve seen them before. They work. They’ve been refined to a point where you can make a Rocky movie out of them. Hostiles instead presents various scenes (albeit beautifully captured scenes) bodged together, like you were to cut up a lengthy comic book leaving only the odd panel. You’re left wondering what the fuck was missed out and just not accepting the various actions and reactions of the characters as they adapt to the story. I didn’t buy the ending at all. There just wasn’t enough between the characters for me to accept it, let alone get all misty eyed like I usually do at these sort of movies.
Cooper vies for greatness, I suspect, by trying to make a non-standard movie with a message, namely one about racial divide – a hot topic now as ever, especially in America. But it’s just not entertaining enough. It’s not genuine enough. And I’m not talking effects or the performances or the sets or the costumes. All that shit is balling. It looks fantastic and sounds fantastic. The only modern movie in this sort of era that looks better or grittier would be The Revenant. Like a master forgery of some old renaissance artwork, Hostiles certainly looks the business. It’s only when you’re close enough to see the brush strokes does it fall apart. The story is too muddled. Too much has been cut from it for you believe in the characters, for you to actually give a damn. It’s trying to be subtle, but trying so hard that it makes it all the more obvious.
There’s a grand message trying to be spoken, but it’s almost as if it was too obvious or too simple, and Cooper has added a whole load of extra shit to try and make it more complicated and somehow more meaningful. It doesn’t work. The Revenant is a very simple story of revenge, but works because we like simple, primal stories. You don’t need all the extra crap to make it significant or Oscar worthy. Sadly Hostiles is a victim of trying too hard to be something significant. Instead of resting on the haunches of a stellar cast, it muddies the waters with irrelevant plot lines, meandering scenes of chit-chat and not enough interaction between the primaries.
As a modern Western, it eschews fast paced action for tension and realism. Taking itself hyper seriously, it is far removed from the likes of the Magnificent Seven remake. Yet, unlike the fantastic True Grit, you seldom smirk or enjoy the spectacle. Revenge here is not satisfying. We’re deeper into Unforgiven territory than Tombstone. I can’t fault any of the performances. They’re all top drawer material; Hollywood vets bringing their A-game for some heavy duty work. Shot by Masanobu Takayanagi who was responsible for the gloriously grim The Grey, it has a lovely glow to the wide scenes, ranging from scorched red deserts, to muddy forests. It certainly looks and feels like a golden age Western in scope and scale.
Based on a story by Donald E. Stewart whom adapted Tom Clancy thrillers Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games and Clear & Present Danger, I question how much was changed by Cooper. It feels bad to lay such harsh criticism on his doorstep, but I’m gonna have to here. Hostiles certainly isn’t bad. It’s merely disappointing. A missed opportunity. It has all the right elements, and I’m sure it will find it’s fans. Lots of people, likely folk with high brow tastes in wine and art films and so forth will appreciate the slow burn, minimalistic meandering feel of this movie. Maybe because it’s asking so many question and offering so few answers I couldn’t get a taste for Hostiles. But I for one would watch it again for Wes Studi. He’s a man to be respected and to be revered. Here he owns the screen. So do it for him. Get it watched.