There’s a moment in the climax of director Brett Donowho’s “The Old Way” where baddie James McCallister (Noah Le Gros) and gunslinger Colton Briggs (Nicolas Cage) finally confront each other face-to-face after having spent the entire movie on each other’s heels. McCallister tells Briggs that they’re going to resolve this conflict “the old way”—i.e., with a duel on the main street of a dusty town—in a way that implies that the film leading up to that point was bucking western genre tradition. But “The Old Way,” which may best be described as a mash-up of “True Grit” and “John Wick,” is painfully predictable for the bulk of its runtime, so much so that I don’t really even feel that mentioning that duel is that much of a spoiler—every story beat, including that one, is obvious from a mile away.
That’s not to say that “The Old Way” isn’t intermittently entertaining, especially for western fans, but it’s the flashes we get of what could have made for a much more interesting movie that prove to be among its most frustrating aspects. “The Old Way,” which was written by Carl W. Lucas, opens in 19th century Montana, where we see cold-blooded gunslinger Briggs bring a man to justice—by shooting him dead, as his young son looks on, the close-up on his intent gaze too-clearly indicating that this isn’t about to be the last we’ll see of him. Fast forward 20 years, and Briggs has given up that life to settle down with a wife (Ruth, played by Kerry Knuppe) and daughter Brooke (Ryan Kiera Armstrong). Briggs owns a store in town, but it’s apparent that he’s perhaps not fully satisfied with that life. In one scene, as a man comes into the shop prefacing his need for flour with a lengthy story about his mother and a cake, the growing impatience on Briggs’ face points to his disinterest in what he perceives as the superficial lives of ordinary folk. That, and he doesn’t exactly get along with his daughter, who possesses a similar outward lack of emotion to her father. That Briggs and Brooke may be on the autism spectrum—something that no one in that area in that time period would have had any knowledge of—is heavily hinted at throughout the film and especially in a conversation they share later, but this potentially intriguing thread is dropped in favor of exploring more conventional revenge tale tropes. You see, McCallister was that little boy whose daddy Briggs killed all those years ago, and when he tracks Briggs and his family down to exact his own revenge, Briggs and Brooke must unite to fight back.
“The Old Way” indulges in some playful father/daughter moments between Briggs and Brooke. Armstrong’s sass and sharp gaze makes her a compelling young lead, while Cage opts for a more subtle performance that drives home his character’s insecurities and regrets. The cast surrounding them, however, aren’t quite up to par, resulting in some scenes feeling overly wooden and hokey. The direction and production design are equally as uninspired, the action by and large less than exciting. And while the name of Colton Briggs is enough to strike fear into the hearts of those who cross him, the film never lets loose with an overly violent climax, never lets Cage go full Cage; it all feels rather tame. As McCallister refers to “the old way,” it’s clear that Western society has changed a lot in the 20 years between the prologue and the rest of the film. Things are more civilized, and there isn’t really a place for Briggs the gunslinger the way there is for Briggs the shopkeeper. But just as it ever so subtly suggests this conflict between old and new, “The Old Way” never elevates its characters, themes, action, or narrative to a place beyond repeating genre tropes to give it a life of its own.
“The Old Way” is now playing in select theaters and is available to watch on demand. Runtime: 95 minutes. Rated R.
Media review screener courtesy Saban Films.