Gallowwalkers (Review)

gallowwalkersThis film has so many things about it that I love: it is a Western, with dark fantasy elements. It’s about monster hunting. It has Wesley Snipes being taciturn and awesome. I got very excited about it.

It is a shame then, that it isn’t very good.

Wesley Snipes plays Aman, a cowboy who is searching for vengeance against the men who raped and killed his wife. This task is complicated by the fact that some times, when people die in this version of the Wild West, they come back. So Wesley Snipes plays a cowboy who hunts the undead, trying to kill those who wronged him (again).

Essentially, this film desperately wants to be Blade. Wesley Snipes plays an almost identical character, doing almost identical things. They even dress very similarly – close fitting black leather. You can tell them apart though, because the protagonist of Gallowwalkers has a beard. Due to the massive similarities, I’m going to be mentioning Blade a lot in this post.

I love Blade – it’s an intensely watchable film. I’m more than happy for imitators to appear. Blade was fast-paced, action-packed, well-constructed. Yes, it was trashy and pulpy, but it was fun, and designed competently enough that you could get immersed in even the more ridiculous bits.

Gallowwalkers isn’t as good. It has good parts, some lovely cinematography, interesting ideas, but the whole thing is let down by the pacing and the structure of the narrative. Blade was a much more focused film, not allowing you slack time to question the (often absurd) narrative. This film is deliberately slow – partly because Westerns tend to be, stylistically, and partly because of how the writers/director chose to tell the story.

To quote one of the (generally scathing but fair) reviews:

“Somewhere around the 25-minute mark, by which point I was already so bored, confused, and fed up I was ready to shut it off, someone demands that Snipes explain what in the hell is going on. I believe that character will be speaking on behalf of everyone watching this film.” – Foywonder, Dreadcentral.com

I wasn’t as bored as that reviewer, but I was deeply confused. The first scene of a decent length in the film is stitch-mouthed cowboy cardinals talking about someone else not showing up for a meeting. Naturally, this defies an obvious explanation. The rest of the film continues like this – the massively complicated backstory isn’t fully explained until the final minutes of the film. I’m aware that the current writing doctrine is to never give information in a block, but there is a limit to that: the audience needs to have some idea of what is going on, and what motivates various characters.

The confusion isn’t helped by the fact that the film uses frequent flashbacks, meaning that the narrative is choppy anyway. Without knowing who the characters in the main timeline are, it’s difficult to connect their past selves to current events in any meaningful way. And when the flashbacks are just images and moments cut together, with no contributory context, then the device which should help explain the backstory just adds to the general fog.

When the plot finally is explained, it fails to thrill. There are too many characters wanting too many things, some of whom have very little relevance to the rest of the plot. The film throws out subplots like a Catherine wheel, and fails to pick up on almost any of them in meaningful ways. They give Snipes’ character, a lone gunman-type figure, too many dependents and links to be an actual lone gunman. He has a family, and one of his first actions is to recruit a sidekick.  It unnecessarily complicates the whole film, and means that the pay-off  at the end is necessarily unsatisfying; the romantic subplot, for example, just fizzles out totally, dismissed in a single line of dialogue.

There are some redeeming qualities to the film – I really like the setting, and there are interesting things that could have been done with it. The Wild West with skin-stealing zombies and gun-wielding Cardinals sounds awesome. It’s a shame that this film squandered that.

The director has definitely seen a lot of Westerns, and the style reflects that – there’s lots of focus on the environment, lots of pregnant pauses, focusing on a single ear, or the steady drip of blood before a burst of action wrecks the calm. That’s probably when the film is at its best – when it’s being a straight Western, orchestrating lightning-fast gunfights.

It’s a violent film – occasionally very violent, but the most over-the-top bits are cartoonish, not visceral. Wesley Snipes is apparently and inexplicably capable of tearing out someone’s spinal cord with comparatively little effort. People get skinned, axes thunk and severed heads are held up, but most of the horrific parts take place off-screen; other than spines, the violence tends to be heavily implied, not directly shown.

Strangely, for such a film, there’s very little sexual content. I’m not complaining, but sex and death tend to come as a package for pulpy films, and this one is quite restrained. I don’t know if the film was angling for a specific rating, but the absence is surprising, even tasteful. It is an odd barrier for such a film not to cross.

I was surprised, upon looking it up, to see that Gallowwalkers was not a comic book adapatation. It is so much of that style, right down to the animated credits in red and black. It even has the extraneous world-building that typifies the genre, filled with references to previous issues and characters.

But Gallowwalkers isn’t based on anything. All those extraneous characters and details are part of the film itself, not callouts to an expanded universe. Gallowwalkers is just as film that does an uncannily good job of pretending to be an adaptation. It is in fact astonishing how proficient a disguise it is, especially when you consider the quality of the film in general.

Comics are an increasingly popular source for films, and seem to be doing rather well at the moment, so I can see why they sought to give that impression. Additionally, the plan may have been to release a graphic novel after the film’s success. Given the lack of success though, I think it unlikely that any such plans will come to fruition.

Make no mistake – Gallowwalkers is a bad film. It has some well-made moments, but they are marred by confusing structure and pace. It fails to live up to its promise in various ways. I can’t, in good conscience, recommend it. But I did find it quite fun – I’ve mentioned before, I am sure, that I have a weakness for trashy monster films, whether those monsters are giant sharks or the undead. As such, I’ll enjoy almost anything as long as it isn’t totally, irredeemably terrible.

Gallowwalkers is a bad film, but it is not completely and utterly without hope. With a few changes, it might even be good. It isn’t going to get those changes though, so unless you also harbour an unquenchable thirst for monster hunter films, give it a miss.

Buy it here.

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