'Gunless' shoots blanks

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Latest from Paul Gross another misfire in the search for the great Canadian funny movie

Canadians are a good, decent, smart and funny people who can make good, decent and smart movies. What eludes us, with all due respect to "Porky's," are the funny ones.

The latest effort is Gunless, a Western about a ruthless but honourable killer and his adventures in a tongue-in-cheek Canada. It's a genial enough comedy that's a combination of love story, cultural critique, farce and revenge yarn, which means it's none of them, really.

Canadians are a good, decent, smart and funny people who can make good, decent and smart movies. What eludes us, with all due respect to "Porky's," are the funny ones.

The latest effort is Gunless, a Western about a ruthless but honourable killer and his adventures in a tongue-in-cheek Canada. It's a genial enough comedy that's a combination of love story, cultural critique, farce and revenge yarn, which means it's none of them, really.

It takes place in 1882 in a mild, mild West where the notorious gunslinger The Montana Kid - a desperado who has killed 11 men - is played by Paul Gross, a good, decent, smart and funny guy, as it happens, but one whose good looks, gleaming smile and essential gallantry shine through, even when they cover him in dirt and stick a mane of long black hair on his head. He looks like a model on an adventure holiday.

The Kid is the violent American in a film about what happens when Yankee vengeance stumbles into Canadian pacifism, except you never buy Gross as anything but a Canuck in disguise. When he rides into the small town of Barclay's Brush in what someone calls the Dominion of Canada ("just when you thought that it couldn't get any worse," snarls The Kid), it seems more like a homecoming than an invasion.

The Kid arrives backwards on his horse and with a noose around his neck. He has just escaped a hanging, and a gang of bounty hunters led by Ben (Callum Keith Rennie, scarred and spitting frequently) is on the way to capture him. But meanwhile, the Kid has a score to settle: the local blacksmith (Tyler Mane from "X-Men") has insulted him and he demands a shootout.

Unfortunately, this is Canada, and no one has any handguns. So the kid has to hang around until someone fixes up an old revolver the blacksmith can use. This is a strange plot twist - if the Kid has to be stranded in Barclay's Brush, maybe the movie should have put him on a waiting list for a hip replacement - but fortunately, the hanging around's pretty good.

This is mostly due to the presence of Jane (British actress Sienna Guillory, who carries a Cate Blanchett-like air of intelligent beauty), a pretty widow who needs help to install a windmill on her property (Montana Kid: "Why don't you get your husband to get it up?" which is about as close as "Gunless" gets to raucous sexuality. This is a film about decency, and there isn't even any violence, unless you count a couple of people who get shot in the bum.)

The joke is how The Kid has wandered into a clean-living Canadian town where people drink tea at the saloon, help their neighbours, and provide free health care (local doctor: "I always pull the first bullet out of a man's butt pro bono.") There's a funny scene where the residents get into an argument about whether a gun is an invitation to violence or just another tool, neither good nor bad, a discussion that sounds like a parody of your local op-ed page.

However, the characters aren't as colourfully eccentric as the screenplay wants them to be, and a sense of irony just about swamps "Gunless," especially in the performance of Guillory, who maintains a half-smile of complicity. Gross keeps up the pretence of bloody-mindedness, but it's not entirely convincing: The Kid seems more realistic when he softens at the edges and becomes the fair-minded citizen we knew he always was.

Written and directed by William Phillips, who also scored a near-miss with the 2003 caper film "Foolproof," "Gunless" is like a Canadian remake of "Shane," one in which the killer learns to lay down his weapons at the end of the film instead of picking them up again. It's an intriguing idea that "Gunless" doesn't look at too deeply. It's too easygoing for that, but what do you expect from the Dominion of Canada?

2 1/2 stars out of five

Organizations: The Kid, Dominion

Geographic location: Canada, Barclay

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