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.
Writing in The Globe and Mail, theatre critic Ray Conologue said, “Paul Gross… is so good-looking that some women sitting near to me on opening night would forcibly argue that the only thing he could do wrong would be to go home alone afterward.” Mention that to the citizens of Osoyoos, British Columbia, however, and you may get a quizzical look or two.
“I’d go into the 7/11 to get milk and I looked unhinged,” says Gross. “The good people of Osoyoos [located in the southern part of the Okanagan Valley near British Columbia’s border with Washington state] had never seen anything like this so they wouldn’t even sell me milk at the 7/11.”
No, Gross hasn’t been tragically disfigured or succumbed to the ravages of age. In fact, in middle age he’s looking as matinee idol handsome as ever, a fact he tries to hide in Gunless (which opens on April 30, his 51st birthday), by covering his famous face with a mop of matted, dirty hair. In this western comedy he plays The Montana Kid, an 1880s American gunslinger who comes North, finds nobility and becomes, well, gunless.
“You know, there are those decisions you make every once and while that are really stupid,” he says. “I woke up one morning before I went out to BC and I thought, ‘I think he should have long hair.’
“I said to Bill [Phillips, the film’s director], ‘It’ll work. Trust me. If it doesn’t we can just cut it.’ I don’t know if you’ve ever had really long hair or extensions, but don’t. If someone comes up to you on the street and says, ‘Hey I can give you long hair.’ Just don’t talk to the guy. It takes about 112 hours to get them in and they are applied largely with a nail gun. They are just driven straight into your skull and then you are stuck with this long hair. It’s appalling. It gets in your mouth, in your food…
“On top of that, we get out to the set and it was 312 in the Kelvin scale. That’s 45 degrees Celsius. 312 Kelvin. I looked it up. And something went wrong with the hair. It started to mat. Particularly on the right side. It looked like Princess Leia on meth… a cow patty set sideways on my head. We could not untangle it so then we just cut it off. So I had one short side and one ridiculously long side.”
No wonder he got strange looks at the convenience store, but the hair and the trouble shopping for milk weren’t the most difficult part of the shoot.
“The worst thing really was the dust. If you saw pictures of the crew they are all wearing bandanas, masks and ski goggles and the actors are all standing there sucking back clouds of it. It’s like the clouds out of Iceland. They stop planes in this kind of stuff, but we kept shooting.”
Thankfully the dust didn’t last for the whole shoot and Gross developed a fondness for Osoyoos.
“I didn’t know this area of the country existed and I’ve seen a lot of Canada. I encourage everybody to go. It is absolutely staggeringly beautiful.”