The great American western rode off into the sunset decades ago but Hollywood is saddling up with cowboy mythology again in unexpected ways with aliens, zombies, video games and, this weekend, a spirited, scrawny lizard named Rango.
“There’s something we love about the rise of that silhouette of the gunslinger and the way they make that ultimate choice of reaching for the gun at their hip,” said director Gore Verbinski, whose animated epic “Rango” tips its hat to signature moments from classics such as “High Noon,” “Destry Rides Again” and “Once Upon a Time in the West.”
More than a winking tribute, though, “Rango,” which stars Johnny Depp, is part of a posse of reconstituted westerns in pop culture and with more on the way.
“Cowboys & Aliens” hits theaters July 29 with a story that lives up to title – Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford aim their six-shooters at extraterrestrial marauders in the Old West – while actor Andrew Lincoln’s lone-lawman-on-horseback from “The Walking Dead” stirs up plenty of frontier desperation for the acclaimed AMC series even though it happens to be about a modern-day zombie catastrophe. “I watched a lot of Gary Cooper,” “Walking Dead” star Andrew Lincoln has explained of his cowboy compass.
Then, of course, there’s “True Grit,” the Coen Brothers film that was nominated for best picture at last month’s Academy Awards, a movie that had already shocked industry insiders by piling up more than $215 million in worldwide box office, the second biggest total of any Hollywood western in history (although if you adjust for inflation, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and other classics also ride higher in the saddle). [UPDATE: An earlier version of this post stated that "True Grit" is the No. 1 money maker all-time, that title still belongs to "Dances With Wolves"]
“True Grit” is the rare classicist in the crowd. Verbinski said that’s because studios see the western as limited in audience potential unless it’s simply loaning its iconography to a genre hybrid.
“There’s a fear of going straight genre with a western so you see a lot of the genre splices, you know, like a lot of sci-fi films are really westerns,” Verbinski said. “But I think audiences are open – or more than open, they’re probably a little hungry again — for that simpler time and telling a simple story. I think that’s why ‘True Grit’ has done so well; that and the fact that it’s wonderful.”
“Rango,” meanwhile, has gotten strong early reviews for its loopy and oddly philosophical tale of a little lizard who finds himself wearing the sheriff’s badge in a harsh outpost known as Dirt. The Paramount Pictures release channels the ghosts of Carlos Castaneda, Hunter S. Thompson and the Spirit of the West (whose squint looks a lot like a certain Hollywood icon known for his high-plains drifting).
The movie’s cast also includes Isla Fisher, Bill Nighy, Abigail Breslin, Alfred Molina, Harry Dean Stanton, Ray Winstone, Ned Beatty and Timothy Olyphant, the latter of whom stars a Kentucky lawman in his own old West update, the acclaimed FX series’ “Justified” and also wore a badge in the rattlesnake environs of “Deadwood,” the malovently masterful HBO series. With that considerable supporting cast, “Rango” is far less cuddly or cookie-cutter than most animated features these days, which Verbinski said is by design. He admits, though, that taking chances is never easy.
“I think in a world of data of what works and what doesn’t work, when a producer’s intuitive responses are trusted less than research, I think it’s forgotten that an audience wants something new,” Verbisnki said. “It’s fiscally responsible at some point to ignore the data…there’s something about waking up at 3 in the morning in a cold sweat. At first glance it’s sort of unhealthy but to me mediocrity is just this force that is going to get you. The gravity of it pulls you down. I’m a firm believer in fear.”
In Hollywood, there are few things that scare studio executives more than a straight western. Still, the genre got some energy from an unlikely corner of pop culture last year with Red Dead Redemption, the video game from Rockstar Games that has sold more than 8 million copies and stands as the most acclaimed title in years for its 1911 tale of last-ditch revenge in the waning days of the Old West.
The game essentially won every industry award and, according to one filmmaker, it might be training youngsters to open up to a grand old storytelling tradition. “Cowboys & Aliens” director Jon Favreau said he played the game with his star, Craig, on the set of their film and watched with eager fascination as the game became a signature touchpoint for young entertainment consumers who have no recollection of “Unforgiven,” much less “The Searchers.”
“I’ve been hearing since ‘Swingers’ that you can’t make westerns,” the filmmaker said, referring to his breakthrough 1996 film. “And when I saw Ron Howard’s [2003 western] ‘The Missing’ it scared the hell out of me. He did everything right and they couldn’t break through to the next level the way an action movie or a high-tech movie or a thriller can. You go back to ‘Unforgiven,’ even, it won the Oscar for best picture but if you sit down with the bean counters it’s not easy to win them over to make three more of those.”
Howard, who is also a producer on “Cowboys & Aliens,” is going back to the western but, like so many younger filmmakers, he’s splicing its DNA with different genres — “The Dark Tower” will adapt the Stephen King fantasy novels about a nomadic gunslinger named Roland Deschain who tangles with magic, monsters and mutants in a surreal landscape. The hope is for a film trilogy that begins in 2013 as well as a tie-in television series.
Meanwhile, Verbinski and Depp plan to team up for Disney’s upcoming “The Lone Ranger” revival, which would be something of a dusty counterpart to their “Pirates of the Caribbean” films, at least as far as the action-comedy tone. It’s an interesting move for Depp, who has taken subversive rides through the Hollywood cowboy film with “Rango” and the trippy 1995 post-modern western “Dead Man.” He says he expects nothing less when he plays Tonto for the masked-man adventure that will be viewed as a horse of another color by traditionalists.
“Gore is a rare beast and I think we’ve come up with some bits that are going to really turn the thing on its head in a way,” Depp said. “We’re going to drop the bottom out of what’s expected of the Lone Ranger. The idea of Tonto being the sidekick is out of the question. It’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s going to places that westerns don’t usually go.”
– Geoff Boucher
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