Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Gunslinger

Man oh man, to quote "Big Fan," that's the last time I ever trust Hawaiians with my pizza. Yesterday's ham and pineapple surprise has left me swimming and sniffing in a murky haze. So I'll keep this nice and short. Roger's going to review The Gunslinger today. Later in the week I have 2010's first writer interview. There's also a script I wasn't liking when I started but somehow it came back from the dead with a vengeance (hey! staying with today's theme - see below). I also have a script review of an upcoming release whose recent trailers have left fanboys giddy with anticipation (no, it's not Inception - I'm fairly sure Nolan has snipers perched across the street for if I ever post a review of that script). There's another review I'm doing for a script that I can't remember at the moment. That can't be a good thing. Oh! And we may finally get to post Roger's review of Book of Eli again, since it'll be coming out on Friday. As always, here's Roger with his Monday review...

Genre: Western, Action Premise: When a Texas Ranger is horrifically tortured and killed, his sharp-shooter older brother, Sam Lee Hensley, plots revenge against the mysterious, sadistic leader of a notorious drug cartel. Sam Lee's quest for vengeance will cost him seven years in prison, his right hand and one eye. It will imperil his young nephew and wreak havoc on the lives of those who love him. And it will not bring him peace. About: Nabbed by Warner Brothers with Andrew Lazar (Jonah Hex, Akira) producing through his Mad Chance banner. This is the first feature spec sale for Hlavin, who was once an assistant to Nick Thiel, show-runner of NBC's Lax. The Gunslinger finished as the 9th highest rated screenplay on the 2009 Black List with 21 votes. Writer: John Hlavin

Was it wrong of me to think of Roland and The Dark Tower when I first saw this title on the Black List? Was this the first portion of the adaptation by JJ Abrams, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse?
Not according to the logline, friendo.
A few pages in, I discovered that all things don't necessarily serve the beam. But that's okay, I wasn't too disappointed. Because Sam Lee is carved from the same inimitable rock as Roland (The Man With No Name, or Uomo senza nome if you want to get spaghetti about it). Which is to say he's someone who doesn't talk about his feelings much, just another grizzled whiskey-and-sawdust tough guy who's a whiz with a gun.
The perfect suit to wear to a revenge tale.
But is Sam Lee worthy enough to join the table with his cinematic predecessors?
I think so.
For an actor who wants to get his Bronson, Eastwood, and Lee Marvin on, the role of Sam Lee is for you.
If you're at a crossroads and you have to choose between projects, I guess the only question you can really ask yourself is, "Do I want to be a badass, or not? I?"
Sometimes I don't want my heroes to have diarrhea of the mouth, cracking jokes like clowns and running from page to page pontificating witty one-liners. Sometimes I just want them to shut-up so I can watch them kill the men that wronged them, silently and mercilessly going about their business the way only a man with gun and heart-on-fire can.
And that's where Sam Lee comes in. Sam Lee is the reason to read "The Gunslinger". It's that simple.
So it's a revenge tale, right?
Correctamundo! And why not?
Sometimes I need my cinematic violence to be cathartic.
Sometimes I just need to go on a good Vengeance Quest.
That's a weird thing to say, isn't it? Why are we drawn to stories where vengeance is the answer? Where destruction is the resolution? In reality, I don't think vengeance ushers in a blanket of peace for people (something explored in Jeff Nichols' excellent Southern flick, Shotgun Stories). Or does it?
Surely, the Vengeance Quest violates our sense of ethics, certainly our morals, but yet it exists in the world of Story for a reason. And when well told, a Vengeance Quest comes off as therapy. An emotional purging or cleanse.
We accept the Vengeance Quest because it works.
So what's the revenge plot, Rog?
It starts out simple enough. We open on the crime scene of Danny Hensley, a Texas Ranger who has been brutally murdered. It's particularly distressing because the used syringes on the coffee table and the multiple needle marks on Danny's arm suggests that he was kept alive for maximum torture.
The local Sheriff and a Captain with the Rangers, Phil, discuss the possibility that although Danny wasn't into the drug trade, he was probably murdered by members of a Mexican cartel to serve as a warning or a challenge to American law enforcement.
Danny's brother, Sam Lee, arrives on scene. His world changes. Cut to the funeral where we meet Danny's widowed wife, Deborah. In her grief, she comes to Sam Lee with the question, "Why'd this happen, Sam Lee?" To which he replies, "I don't know. I intend on finding out, though."
And that's not all. Disregarding Phil's advice to not "let anger be his true north", Sam Lee accepts his quest for vengeance and we're plunged instantly into the fray with him.
Soon we're in Snow's Bar with Sam Lee as he interrogates a small-time dealer named Flip. Sam Lee needs to find out who owns the shack his brother was murdered in. Instead of answering Sam Lee, Flip sasses him.
Wrong move.
It's here, on page 8, where we learn why this script is titled "The Gunslinger". Sam Lee has Flip on the floor. He crouches above him. The bartender behind Sam Lee moves in with a baseball bat.
Sam Lee blasts the bartender's baseball bat into smithereens based purely on the reflection of it in Flip's sunglasses. Needless to say, the bartender pisses himself.
Sam Lee, using the info he got from Flip, arrives at the track house of a major dealer. A guy named Diego. Things don't go well for Diego and his crew because Sam Lee isn't really here to ask more questions. He's here to kill the people who tortured his brother. Which, with his requisite scary gunplay, he does.
Thing is, Diego threatens that the man he works for will do much worse to Sam Lee than he did to Danny. However, Diego dies before Sam Lee can get the man's name.
But as our tale would have it, we discover that Sam Lee killed a CI (confidential informant) for the DEA. Phil loses his job with the Rangers (he threw Sam Lee his first clue, which he acquired illegally from DEA files) and Sam Lee is promptly whisked off to prison.
But that's not all she wrote, because seven years later, Sam Lee is released back into the world and the first thing he does is fortify his ranch house. Why? People are still looking to avenge Diego's death.
Then, out of the blue one day, a woman arrives at his ranch.
Who is she?
Her name is Estrella and she claims that she is the mother of Danny's son. Apparently, Danny was having an affair with this woman. Estrella wants Sam Lee's help because her son, Carlito (now Sam Lee's nephew), has been kidnapped by a Sinoloa child-snatcher named Emilio.
Of course, the location for an old-fashioned money-for-the-kid exchange is set up, and as we can all guess, it's all a ploy to pull Sam Lee out of hiding.
Although Estrella really is the mother of Sam Lee's nephew, we learn she only became pregnant to blackmail Danny. For what (and why?), I'm still a little confused about.
Sam Lee is captured by and brought to the leader of the Tarto Cartel, Francisco Moreles.
Ah, the man behind the curtain. Is he a good villain?
He's certainly set-up as one. His best scene is his first, where he tortures Sam Lee while telling us his Scarfacian story. He's a doctor by trade, but early on, tragic circumstances taught Moreles he could make more money as a drug trafficker. It's a really great torture sequence that reminds me of Richard Stark's Parker novels.
It's the scene where Sam Lee loses a hand and an eye.
By pure Texan moxie and resourcefulness, Sam Lee escapes and takes refuge with Deborah, who is a nurse, and she fixes him up as best as she can.
The story then sort of acquires the engine that drove Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, which is basically a journey to rescue the nephew of a murdered brother.
Does "The Gunslinger" achieve catharsis?
For the most part, I really like the first half of this script. It opens confidently and it's fun to read. There are some events that push the limits of suspension of disbelief, but I guess you're willing to roll with them.
At first.
But the cumulative effect really weakens the second half. I'm no pedant, but if I have to tell you about the problem areas of this draft I'd point you in the direction of not only the story, but the plot as well.
Rationally, I understand why Sam Lee wants revenge.
Emotionally, I wasn't completely hooked. And that has to do with the reveal concerning Sam Lee's brother and what he was up to before he got himself murdered. There's some convolution in the telling. I was being told that Danny had issues in his marriage. As a result of these issues, I was also being told that he went and had an affair and had an illegitimate child. Fair enough. But then there's some double-dealing with the mother of this child, and that's where cracks started to appear in this backstory. By being told all of this information, I was forced to think about it. Perhaps if I was simply shown this information I would have been too busy emotionally connecting with the characters than scrutinizing their history.
Plot-wise, I wondered if the Sam Lee's 3rd Act plan was a miscalculation. It's a plan of last resort, and plans of last resort work if we don't question their logic. I don't question a last stand when I know, "Oh well, they're really at a dead-end here. What else can they do?"
And that was my issue. It felt like Sam Lee could have done a lot of other things besides using himself and his nephew as bait. Really? Making a last stand in front of a panic room your nephew is in? It's certainly interesting, but is it the most interesting choice to make? Does it come from character? It just didn't feel like the proactive choice for Sam Lee to make.
Unlike little Macaulay in Home Alone, Sam Lee ain't no little kid.
He's the fucking gunslinger! Let him come to the antagonists, not the other way around. In Death Wish and Dirty Harry, Kersey and Callahan always pursued their victims, no matter how dangerous these villains were. Hell, Harry had the balls to confront robbers with an empty gun. Granted, Sam Lee is injured, but he's a Texan. Unless it's The Alamo, Texans are the de facto aggressors, not the guys in hiding.
Would it also be too comicbooky to suggest that I would have liked to see a foil, a badass obstacle, in the form of a nemesis who was just as good with guns as Sam Lee? I mean, maybe it's my videogame mentality (when I play them I drool), pulp urges, and my love for Chigurh from No Country for Old Men, but I wanted Moreles to have a crony who wasn't just there for a headshot. A living, breathing secondary villain. An anti-gunslinger. Think of that badass boss battle.
Give this Roland his Eldred Jonas, amirite?
Regardless, "The Gunslinger" may not be as melancholy and tumultuous as its logline promises (yet), but it's a solid and grim actioner with a protagonist that already feels iconic. Let's all cross our fingers and hope it gets made, because Sam Lee is the type of role that will be written about in the cinema books.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: "The Gunslinger" has some complicated backstory we have to catch up with. It's not Byzantine or anything, but I think, as screenwriters, we have to be careful molding our character motivations and our narrative events. There's a type of Complicated a screenwriter can hit that seems to convolute a story. Unlike television, a feature can't always devote the necessary time to properly tell (but by tell I mean show) a backstory. Brevity and clarity are required. With limited screen-time, the tendency is for a writer to just try and tell an audience the necessary details. The only problem is, showing is more powerful than telling. When it comes to correlating Point A with Point B in a narrative, you want to make the connection as clear and direct as possible. Subtlety may seem complicated, but an audience catches those subtle moments if they're paying attention. Subtlety is sometimes best left to the actors. Build an easy-to-follow roadmap for your audience so they can feel the story without having to think too much about it. In short? Simplify your conflict.