Friday, March 2, 2007

Navajo Joe

dir. Sergio Corbucci

Burt Reynolds deliverances us from evil.

February 7, 2007 - 35mm/Film Forum

Burt Reynolds, who is a quarter Cherokee, plays the titular character in Navajo Joe. It is only slightly disconcerting to see Mr. Reynolds caked in a reddish layer of body covering make-up, as the movie takes on an approach of reaching back to a time, and a race, that has been wiped out of history. Joe lives alone; his tribe and lover’s lives stripped from him, and thus the last pieces of something humane and familiar have disappeared. He cannot simply be described as lovelorn and lonely, as his loss is larger than that, reeking of post-apocalyptic recklessness and despair. His people are gone and he exists in a deserted wasteland of a patch of ground, resembling something far less than a hogan, and more like the scarecrow-strewn plains of Planet of the Apes.

Joe lives a superhero existence, living out his days fighting for a code of honor and justice, and spending his off time at a dilapidated lair, but he has no need for a mask or an alter ego. Instead he tosses his body from horse to horse with complete abandon, selflessly, instinctively saving the day. Reynolds excels with his ferocious, grounded physicality, balanced by his very direct, very funny line delivery. “I’m going to need some dynamite,” Joe repeats over and over again to much laughter, intentionally or otherwise… it doesn’t matter. Ennio Morricone’s score is one of loud high-pitch screaming coupled with rhythmic chants of “NAVAJO JOE!”, effectively tempering the rather placid Joe with an undercurrent of operatic anger and desperation. This musical cue also functions in further injecting some sort of comic book or superhero element by giving Joe a theme song.

While these layers of apocalyptic emotions flood Reynolds’ performance and the overall feeling of the picture, it is unfortunately framed as a revenge saga. The folks that murdered his people scheme to rob a large lump of cash and lay waste to a blossoming Western town. Joe volunteers to protect the town, and in turn volunteers to kill every last one of the bandits, with shotguns, pistols, knives, dynamite and his hands. The story would succeed to a greater degree if revenge had nothing to do with it. Joe never stakes his claim of revenge, or demonstrates ill judgment due to any personal emotional involvement with the crooks, and thus themes of revenge are never really explored and are irrelevant. Director Sergio Corbucci seems to favor the idea that Reynolds is playing a wanderer who has stepped out from the dust of some extinct species and different time, frightening even those he volunteers to protect. This idea is far more interesting than simple revenge, and thankfully there is greater time spent on it. As a result, any hint of the revenge narrative feels a bit tacked on, though fun and action packed.

Eventually the townspeople acquiesce to the idea of a mythic stranger unquestionably saving their skin, yet once they’ve used him all up the dinosaur wanders off into the sunset. He may be going to save another town, but more likely he’ll fade away.

This is part of the ongoing Morricone Festival coverage.

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