Directed by Mario Van Peebles. Starring Mario Van Peebles, Stephen Baldwin, Charles Lane, Tiny Lister, Big Daddy Kane, Billy Zane, Tone Loc. (1993)
REVIEWED By Louis Black, Fri., May 21, 1993
The beginning is both startling and exciting. A monologue by Woody Strode becomes the voiceover narration of this Western. It is the perfect moment, Posse is about reclaiming the past, both the historical reality of the West where as much as one-third of the population was black, and the Hollywood reality where blacks, for the most part, were denied any but the most menial roles. Though he had other menial roles, Strode was the great star of John Ford's Sergeant Rutledge and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. In this moment, Van Peebles -- actor, writer, director, star -- comes close to grasping what he's after. Unfortunately, there's the rest of the film. The first hour is startling, beginning with Jessie Lee (Van Peebles), a killer sentenced to life in the army, fighting in the Spanish American War in Cuba. His sadistic, racist, vain, bullying Colonel (Zane) involves Jessie Lee in a scam, planning to kill him off at the end. Instead, he and his comrades flee to the mainland with the Colonel and a band of thugs soon in pursuit. Chased across the West, Jessie Lee returns home to avenge his father's murder at the hands of a sadistic, racist, vain, bullying sheriff. It's during this second part that the film's cracks are too apparent. The plot slows down to a crawl and the action and characters are predictable. Van Peebles is a really sloppy writer, frequently he'll think about a scene two ways and then instead of using one, he uses both -- thus when he returns to his girlfriend, she first rejects him and then immediately turns around and accepts him. Rather than a coherently developed narrative, the film is filled with flotsam and jetsam from other films: a scene here, a shot there, a bunch of lines -- they just really never make sense together. Van Peebles is obviously influenced by his father, Melvin Van Peebles and by Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone, the film being littered with homages to them. Regrettably, the most noticeable precedent is the work of Tom McLaughlin (of the Billy Jack opus). The knee-jerk leftist ideological dialogue in a racist, violent script is offered as though the words somehow anoint the entertainment. The good news is that Van Peebles can act, he just shouldn't direct himself; the Stallone narcissism overwhelms the character. The cast is terrific and the idea great: the history of the West should be reclaimed. The film just slips and slides, both characters and plot drifting in and out of view. In its own way, sloppy and excessive with LSD camera work and cutting, Posse is like a Gene Autrey Western from the Forties where the bad guys are the bad guys and the good guys are the good guys and the girl and the boy love each other (and those films were frequently more elliptically hallucinatory than this). Ideology doesn't matter and philosophy doesn't matter, just a simple story about good and bad, kind of a racial rather than a metaphysical El Topo where the metaphor is violence as redemption and the Holy Text is the American comic book.