The screenplay by Carl W. Lucas is an amalgam of bits cribbed from other Westerns (“True Grit” is perhaps the most apparent antecedent, especially in the too-loquacious-by-half dialogue) along with elements from the likes of “River of No Return” and “Unforgiven”). There are also moments that will remind Cage fans of his previous work—the previous attempt at taking care of Brooke is reminiscent of one of the more notorious scenes from “Kick-Ass,” and the basic plot will strike some as similar to the wonderful “Pig.” However, “The Old Way” never quite manages to knit these elements into a compelling narrative. Some of the plot contrivances—such as McCallister’s determination to pull off his wildly contrived and labor-intensive revenge plot instead of just shooting him when he has the chance, as he is advised to do by crusty cohort Eustice (Clint Howard)—become silly after a while. (Suffice it to say, if you are in an Old West gang and the wisest and sanest counsel comes from the Clint Howard character, you might want to try applying to another gang.) There’s one potentially intriguing element to be had in the emotional quirks possessed by Colton and Brooke, but the film never develops it to any significant degree.
“The Old Way” is also hampered by what is presumably its key selling point, the Cage performance. His work isn’t necessarily bad (although there are a couple of moments where he seems to be doing a dry run for his upcoming turn as Dracula, of all things), but his primary persona is so contemporary that he inevitably feels wildly out of place in what is meant to be a traditional take on the Western. (Since “Butcher’s Crossing” was more of a commentary on the genre than an example, his presence there wasn’t quite as odd.) As the bad guy, his oddness might have been a better fit (in fact, Le Gros at times seems to be actively channeling the Cage of old as the twisted villain). Still, as the hero—even one with as many quirks as his character contains—he never manages to be especially convincing.
Perhaps if more Westerns were being made these days, “The Old Way”—which is more of a half-baked mistake than a total disaster—might have been a little palatable or at least easier to forgive. However, at a time when interest in the theatrical Western appears to be at an all-time low and when even a film as strong and vibrant as Walter Hill’s masterful “Dead for a Dollar” barely inspires any notice, even a seemingly minor misfire like this, with a screenplay that bounces between portentousness and silliness, listless execution by director Brett Donowho, and a somewhat miscast star, winds up looming larger than it might otherwise have. The Western may not be entirely dead yet, but “The Old Way” is not exactly doing it any favors.
Now playing in theaters and available on demand and on digital platforms on January 13th.