In its opening minutes “Gunless,” the new Paul Gross film, simultaneously pays homage to and has fun with the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. The dusty landscape and stark camera work look lifted from “A Fistful of Dollars” and the opening credit pays direct homage to the Italian master. A red hot branding iron embosses the words “Once Upon a Time in the West” across the screen. However, with a quick flip of the compass dial—and by superimposing the word “North” over “West”—the movies takes a sharp turn away from Leone territory and into the Great White North. Call it a Poutine Western if you like, but with that one simple change “Gunless” becomes a uniquely Canadian western.
Paul Gross plays The Montana Kid, an American gunslinger who comes North and finds nobility and becomes, well, gunless. Wanted by bounty hunters he drifts north, taking refuge in a small one horse town. He’s a tough, ornery killer who lives by the code of the gun, but after spending time with the locals and a goofy Mountie (Dustin Milligan)—particularly with the fetching Jane (Sienna Guillory)—he realizes he doesn’t need his firearm to live. His resolve his challenged when his arch enemy Ben Cutler (Callum Keith Rennie) shows up to take the Kid back to the US, dead or alive.
“Gunless” is silly. Not “Blazing Saddles” silly, but a man says to his horse, “You’ve got carrot breath” silly. The first half of the film is played strictly for laughs, and while much of it isn’t that successful, Gross does do the finest face plant in the history of Canadian cinema. The humor seems to be aimed at kids but I’m not sure children will be that interested in the story of a gunslinger, his code of honor and a widow who builds a windmill.
The “Benny Hill” humor is largely put on hold for the middle part of the movie when it becomes like an eager-to-please Bollywood movie, mixing romance, action, humor and even a dance sequence. It’s all over the place and while some of the transitions from farce to sincerity to gun slinging are kind of jarring, the movie retains a kind of goofy charm throughout.
Gross, despite his background in light comedy on “Due South,” is most effective here not when he is playing around, but when he is deadly serious. A number of scenes leading up to the pivotal show down show him in full-on Clint Eastwood “Unforgiven” mode, twirling his peace maker while trying to come to grips with all the blood he has spilled in his life. They don’t exactly fit the tone of the scenes that came before, or the scenes to follow, but it is a good indicator that Gross can play a slightly darker character than the nice guy roles he usually takes on.
“Gunless” is probably the most Canadian western ever made. It’s a story about a gunslinger that is anti gun—boy, is the NRA going to hate this movie—and anti violence. More to the point, however, the story is used to display the subtleties of Canadian and American relations.