June 22, 2005
Starring: Vincent Cassel, Juliette Lewis, Michael Madsen, Temura Morrison, Ernest Borgnine, Djimon Hounsou, Hugh O’Connor, Eddie Izzard, Colm Meaney, Geoffrey Lewis, Tcheky Karyo, ,
(Very) Loosely based on Jean “Moebius” Giraud’s famous comic strip, Blueberry, Jan Kounen’s Renegade (2004) only uses the French artist’s work as a starting point for which to go off on all kinds of fanciful, metaphysical tangents. It starts with obvious nods to Sergio Leone’s expansive widescreen spaghetti westerns and ends up tripping the light fantastic with blatant references to the cosmic climax of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
As a young man, Mike Blueberry was taken from his home in Louisiana to the western frontier to live with relatives. He falls in love with a beautiful prostitute but they are discovered by one of her long-time customers, Wallace Blount (Madsen). In the ensuing struggle, she is killed and Mike is badly wounded. He escapes out into the desert only to be found and nursed back to health by Native Americans who educate Mike in their mystical, shamanistic ways.
Mike grows up to become Marshal Blueberry (Cassel), a fair yet firm lawman of a small town. He keeps his eye on potential treasure hunters looking for gold in the nearby Sacred Mountains. To make matters worse, Blount rides back into town to settle the score with Blueberry and get the gold. The Marshal finds himself torn between his loyalty to his Native American saviours and his duty as a lawman.
From the opening shots of vast, sun-drenched desert landscapes to the lush, green forests that the Native American inhabit, Renegade is saturated in atmosphere. It is rich in texture and detail that immerses the viewer in this world. Kounen uses an impressive arsenal of visual tricks, such as time lapse photography and dissolves to enhance the mystical effect that he is trying to achieve. By the film’s climatic 20 minute mind-trip, the director cranks up his style to a whole other psychedelic kaleidoscope of computer generated abstractions that threatens to overload the senses. After the ten-minute mark it gets to be a little much and after that point it becomes an endurance test.
Like Leone before him, Kounen is fascinated by unconventional looks: old, wrinkled faces, bad teeth, unshaven faces and broken noses. This is not some glamourous Hollywood film. Cassel and Madsen hide their good looks in scraggily facial hair and dirt. Everyone is covered in sand and dust. Even the presence of Juliette Lewis is one of unconventional beauty.
Kounen has assembled a wonderfully eclectic cast who is game to act out the filmmaker’s vision. There are European mainstays like Vincent Cassel (as the titular hero), American character actors like Michael Madsen (essaying another deliciously low-key bad guy) and Hollywood veterans like Ernest Borgnine. Juliette Lewis (whatever happened to her?) is even thrown into the mix and, unfortunately, is allowed to sing. Vincent Cassel is quite good as Blueberry, demonstrating an impressive range as actor as he adds yet another genre to his already impressive resume (Brotherhood of the Wolf, Irreversible, and Ocean’s Twelve). He conveys just the right amount of gritty authenticity to pull off a credible lawman in the Wild West with an abiding interest in shamanism.
Just a trailer.
Renegade is a western but with a definite European sensibility that is steeped in symbolism and flashy style. Kounen simultaneously celebrates traditional western iconography (six-shooters, horses, etc.) and subverts it with images of mysticism and magic (animal totems). In this respect it bears more than a passing resemblance to the similarly minded western, Dead Man (1995) by Jim Jarmusch. Like it, Renegade is an artsy western but with pretensions to 2001-like cosmic and spiritual awareness. After the last image fades you are practically choking on the dense and intense imagery that comes off as extremely pretentious. But after awhile and once the film’s imagery sinks in, some of Renegade’s striking imagery lingers.