Thursday, 6 September 2012

Three Poor, Lonesome Cowboys

The Helsinki Comics Festival opens today, with it's main theme being Belgian comics. Being a big comic book fan myself, I wanted to do a little something on Belgian comics movies. Since I did Tintin already, it's time to take a look at another character that ranks among the country's most popular: Lucky Luke. Created by cartoonist Morris in 1946, Luke is a western cowboy that can shoot faster than his own shadow and accurate enough to shoot wings off flies. He's accompanied on his adventures by his sarcastic, but loyal horse, Jolly Jumper. Lucky Luke became one of the most beloved strips in the Belgian comic magazine Spirou once the legendary writer René Goscinny took over the writing duties from Morris. He made the series funnier, amped up the western parody to new heights, created imaginative stories that combined real western legends to the myths of them from movies and television, and made the series less violent and more happy-go-lucky. For instance, Morris' own scripts often featured Luke gunning down his antagonist in a final showdown.

Actually, to call Lucky Luke himself popular is a bit of an understatement. Luke is not that special a character, he's a Roy Rogers-type cowbow, mellow, calm, smart and righteous. The real stars of the Lucky Luke comics are the supporting cast Goscinny helped to flesh out. Namely, Luke's main antagonists, The Dalton Brothers. Since Morris had Luke shoot and kill the actual historical Daltons (Frank, Gratton, Bob and Emmet) in an early Luke adventure, Goscinny introduced their cousins, Joe, Jack, William and Averell Dalton. They were not cold-blooded murderers, but rather a quartet of goofy bandits, who managed to always escape from jail despite them being dumber than a bag of hammers. Not surprisingly, almost all of Lucky Luke's silver screen adaptations have featured the Daltons as the villains.

The Ballad of the Daltons (La ballade des Dalton, 1978)
Directors: René Goscinny, Morris

Near the end of his life, René Goscinny founded Studio Idéfix with his two main collaborators, Albert Uderzo and Morris. The idea was to make movie adaptations of their comic books on the terms of the creators. All of them were more or less disappointed in having to compromise their work on previous movies. The first film of the studio, Asterix Conquers Rome, is easily the best big screen adaptation of the beloved Gaul warrior. Unfortunately, Goscinny died even before the studio's second film could premiere. It of course starred Lucky Luke, or rather, the Dalton Brothers.

In the form of a country ballad sung at a saloon, the story tells the legend of the Daltons attempting to gain an inheritance. Uncle Henry Dalton has been hanged and in his last will has left everything to his four bandit nephews. But there is one catch. Joe, Jack, William and Averell have to murder all members of the jury that convicted Henry to get his loot. Since Lucky Luke is seen to be honest enough, he's chosen to be the observer that the Daltons really succeed in killing the right people. Joe is planning on getting his revenge on the cowboy who always sends them to jail after they get the money. But his wit is no match for Lucky Luke's who foils the assassination plans one after another and fakes the deaths of the jury to get the Daltons off the back of innocent people.

The biggest plothole is present right there in the synopsis. Since the Daltons are escaped convicts, why does Luke humor them and takes part in their escapades? He's shown time and time again that he's the faster and more accurate drawer. Why even risk getting innocent people hurt?

As with Asterix Conquers Rome, the spirit and the humor of the comic books has been maintained. But also the film is more or less a pick-and-mix collection of sequences or skits, each framed by the person they are off to kill next. This choice does allow for a multitude of varying scenes that go from a parody of one western cliché to another. There's a haunted mine scene, a rodeo scene, a church scene and even a peyote-addled old-school Hollywood musical that has to be seen to be believed.

But the biggest foil of the film is the same as makes some of the comics a bit uneasy reading nowadays: racism. Classic westerns were not very considerate towards races, and it's reasonable that this aspect should be on display on any parodies thereof. But the outrageous racial stereotypes in Lucky Luke comics go so over the hill that it's hard to take them as mere joke-poking. Indeed, in this film we are shown superbly lazy and stupid Mexicans, and a tiny, buck-toothed, slant-eyed, polite and yellow Chinaman who of course knows karate. At least the treatment of Indians here isn't as bad as in some of the comics.

But warts and all, it's still a real Morris/Goscinny joint, showcasing the talents of both partners. The animation is quite well-done and looks like Morris' drawing style brought to life. The script features laugh-out-loud dialogue and hilarious stupidity from both Averell Dalton and Rin-Tin-Can (or Ran Tan Plan), the prison guard dog. Goscinny is a master of writing a good comedic interchange between a smart, tiny man and a dumb, big guy. The music is also mighty fine and has perhaps the best representation of I'm A Poor Lonesome Cowboy put to film.

★★★ 1/2

Lucky Luke (1991)
Director: Terrence Hill

One of the weirdest and stupidest comic book movie ideas of all time was to give the rights to Lucky Luke to Silvio Berlusconi. The Il Capo of Italian media then turned to idiot-comedy superstar Terence Hill to direct and star in a movie. Hill made two movies and a TV series out of the source material, but it didn't have much of a feel of Lucky Luke in it. No, they felt more like your typical Terence Hill western comedy. The first film (actually shot second since the first one was delayed due to a family tragedy), is actually somewhat faithful to the comic, at least moreso than the TV series. But at its core it's a filmed version of the first proper (non-Turkish) Lucky Luke Film, the animation Daisy Town (1971).

Narrated by Luke's trusty horse Jolly Jumper (voiced by Roger Miller), the movie tells the story of the frontier town called Daisy Town. On the western frontier, a peace is formed between the settlers and the Indians. Thanks to the Indians withdrawing to their own areas, the new settlers start to build houses to live in. Since on the field grows a single daisy, the newly built town is named Daisy Town. But it doesn't take long before the wholesome, frontier spirit changes into vices, crimes and misdemeanor. Daisy Town becomes a harbor for the most notorious bandits of the west. But luckily the famed cowboy Lucky Luke (Hill) arrives into town, and with his quick drawing gun hand, he frees the town of bandits. But Luke is about to meet his match as the Daltons (Ron Carey, Dominic Barto, Bo Greigh and Fritz Sperberg) ride into town. When the most notorious bandits of the west find out Luke is protecting the town's bank and occupants, Joe Dalton hatches a scheme to get the nearby Indian tribes to attack the town.

The opening does maintain many running gags of the comic book, and the Daltons are quite well realized in this. As mentioned, the biggest problem here is Terence Hill. Rather than a calm, cunning and righteous cowboy, his portrayal of Luke is a bit dumb guy who has chewing matches with chipmunks. Luke is pining for the beautiful saloon lady Lotta Legs (Nancy Morgan), even though his comic counterpart was stoic enough to never get involved with women. That's why Luke's main motivation for redempting Daisy Town is to settle in there himself and raise a family, rather than just to help out of altruism. On top of that, white-haired Hill doesn't look anything like Luke since he also insists of dressing in inexplicably white clothes. There's a joke or two to get a snigger out of this, so it isn't a total waste of time. But Luke would deserve better.


Lucky Luke (2009)
Director: James Huth

Lucky Luke is a bit hard to produce on the big screen today, since it's originally a western pastiche and parody of the era Roy Rogers and such had movie serials. People aren't that familiar with that sort of western imagery and convictions nowadays. What are still remembered are Sergio Leone's incredibly strong body of work, and the aesthetics he and fellow Italian spaghetti western directors created. While Terrence Hill's Lucky Luke had the final showdown in the spirit of spaghetti, it mostly did not go to parody the westerns very deep. This 2009 attempt is a much bigger-scaled attempt to update Luke to the modern tastes of western parodies. It takes it's cue mostly from spaghetti westerns and the modern pop culture movies so much in debt to them. In some aspects it works, but mostly, it doesn't.

It's a good idea not to aim the film merely for young children. It's mostly a PG sort of a film, but doesn't pander to younger audiences like most Luke adaptations tend to do. Bullets and punches aren't used sparingly here. Jean Dujardin for the lead character is also a definite step into the right direction. The charismatic French star has the necessary chin, suit and smarts, and is likeable enough to pull the film forward. But parodying spaghetti westerns also means that the main character can't be an altruistic stranger who comes and goes just to help people. He has to be a victim of a tragedy he will fight to right.

So, here Lucky Luke is given a full name: John Luke. As a child he witnesses his parents getting killed by The Cheater Gang. Years later, Luke has become a legend of the west. He has travelled all across the young United States and helped bring out peace and justice without killing anyone. He is hired no one less than the President (André Oumansky) to help clean out Daisy Town. Luke's shooting skills come in handy, but it's not as easy to clean the town since the ruthless Casino Kingpin Pat Poker calls the shots there. Poker presents Luke his parents' watch, and Luke challenges him to a duel. It seemingly ends by Luke shooting Poker dead. Depressed, Luke escapes Daisy Town to a farm. But he can't keep out of the action for long. Along with fellow legends Calamity Jane (Sylvie Testud), Billy the Kid (Michaël Youn) and Jesse James (Melvil Polpaud) he will ride out to ensure their places in the history books.

Unlike most other Luke adaptations, this one doesn't feature the Daltons. What should be a breath of fresh air (The Brothers got their own, ill-recieved movie in 2004), is instead muddled with appearances from far too many characters from classic Lucky Luke albums. The main antagonist is Pat Poker, with Billy the Kid also in an important role. But in addition, we also get Jesse James, Calamity Jane, Phil Defer, Doctor Doxey, Belle Starr and Dirk Digger (hilariously named Dick Digger here). While the plot focuses on these larger-than-life characters (most of which get way too little screentime), the movie forgets the importance of the living milieu and it's silly occupants that stages so many of Luke's adventures. Daisy Town feels like an amusement park western segment, where no one has actually ever lived, but saloon fights, crooked card games and duels are staged every full hour.

So, it's a carnevalistic film, but at least visually somewhat interesting. The colorful imagery and kinetic cinematography keep things easy to look, as does Dujardin's charisma. But Goscinny's greatest jokes aren't told to a very good effect here, and the end result doesn't feel much at home in the world he and Morris created. I would be far more forgiving for the film if it didn't visually signal so much to that direction.

★★ 1/2

I'm a poor lonesome cowboy, and a long, long way from home...

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