Dir: Jan Kounen. Fr-UK-Mex. 2004. 122 mins.
Blueberry is not so much a Gallic makeover of the spaghetti western ' shot in Mexico ' as a feature-length commercial for Indian shamanism, a sort of special effects-driven Dances With Spirits, in which the audience is asked not so much to thrill to the hero's physical adventures as to get high on his spiritual quest. Though Jan Kounen's Euros 35m English-language film is nominally based on a famous French comic strip series it is more beholden to the writings of Carlos Castaneda.
Coming only months after the local failure of the Luc Besson-produced Michel Vaillant, Blueberry could drive another nail into the coffin of comic-strip-based mega-productions. If first day results are any indication Blueberry may be doomed to bite the box office dust.
Kounen and his co-writers has reportedly taken considerable liberties with their popular source, so much so that the cowboy hero is referred to only as Mike but never by his more fabled name, Blueberry. Instead, they spin a familiar tale about a U.S. marshal in a small frontier town who tries to stop some ruthless adventurers from despoiling a mythical Indian treasure in a sacred mountain.
In an opening flashback, Blueberry is a callow Cajun adolescent (O'Conor) who has been packed off by his parents to his uncle in a frontier town. Soon he's frequenting the local cathouse where he is seriously wounded in a confrontation with another customer (Madsen), which leads to the accidental death of a prostitute and the burning down of the brothel. Escaping into the desert, the youth is found by some shaman Indians who nurse him back to health.
Years later we find our hero, now an adult (Cassel), shuffling around town as the new marshal, but still traumatised by his brothel experience and the death of the young prostitute (we later learn it was his stray bullet that killed her). When an adventurer turns up with some shady cohorts with designs on a mythical Indian treasure in the nearby sacred mountains, Cassel realises he is none other than Madsen. After eliminating his own allies one by one, Madsen heads out for the sacred mountain, with Cassel in hot pursuit... And then the film goes out of joint as computer-generated spiritual epiphany supplants the expected final showdown and this for the better part of the film's final half hour.
The real shame is that played straight Blueberry could have been a good, stylish post-Sergio Leone fun. Kounen, known for his ultra-violent 1997 urban thriller, Dobermann (which Miramax picked up for a million dollars), is clearly one of the more talented members of the Besson generation and shows considerable narrative flair in the way he plays with the conventions of the western. Visually, Blueberry is striking, with superb contributions from cinematographer Testuo Nagata, art director Michel Berthelemy and costume designers Chattoune and Fab.
Like the anticlimactic plot, most of the supporting players come to nothing. Lewis is injected into the story as love and revenge interest (Madsen has killed her scheming landowner father) and gets to sing Danny Boy for the boys in the backroom. Meaney is Cassel's hard-drinking deputy, and Borgnine rolls around in a wheelchair as the invalid town sheriff. Only Eddie Izzard has a more developed part as German scholar aiding Madsen but his role is a weak caricature. As the hero, Cassel cuts a lanky, careworn heroic figure but in the end he is only second fiddle to the film's special effects experts.
Prod companies: AJOZ Films, La Petite Reine, UGC Images, Crystal Creek, Ultra Films, TF1 Films Production
French dist: UFD
International sales: UGC International
Producers: Thomas Langmann, Ariel Zeitoun
Screenplay: Matt Alexander, Gerard Brach, Jan Kounen, based on the comic strip by Jean-Michel Charlier and Jean 'Moebius' Giraud
Cinematography: Tetsuo Nagata
Editors: Benedicte Brunet, Joel Jacquella, Jennifer Auge
Production designer: Michel Bartelemy
Costume designs: Chattoune and Fab
Music: Jean-Jacques Hertz, Francois Roy
Special effects: Chia-Chi Hu, Olivier Poujaud
Main cast: Vincent Cassel, Michael Madsen, Juliette Lewis, Temuera Morrison, Colm Meaney, Eddie Izzard, Ernest Borgnine, Hugh O'Conor