Here’s the set-up: a cavalry officer, who has looted a town and slaughtered its population, apparently, is given the task of transporting notorious outlaw Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) by train from one jail to another for no particular reason, but a higher-up soldier has hired the remainder of Buck’s gang, led by Trudy Smith (Regina King) and Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield), to attack the train and kill this officer and in return Buck is granted is freedom. The train driver is so dumb that seeing a horseperson astride the track he simply stops the train, obviously not realising what time period he is in, and that in the lawless West, this person is not taking up this position because they missed their stop. When Buck returns to Redwood, a town no bigger than a postage stamp, he discovers it is actually extremely rich, source of wealth not explained either, except the money has been stolen by his associate Wiley Escoe (Deon Cole), leaving Buck to somehow recover the $50,000 that has been lost.
Buck has been on a losing streak, his own gang having been robbed of $25,000 by another gang led by Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), whose family, incidentally, has been slaughtered by Buck who carved a cross in the young Nat’s forehead, making him of course far too instantly recognisable for such a chosen profession, but that doesn’t seem to bother him.
And that’s before it gets complicated with Love trying to get the drop on Buck, Buck trying to regain his stolen cash, rival gunslingers wanting to demonstrate their quick-draw skills, and rival saloon keepers Trudy and Mary Fields (Zazie Beetz). Fields is another contender for the dumb-and-dumber award after thinking the best way to scout the postage-sized town of Redwood is not just to sneak up in darkness and have a looksee but instead to pretend she’s moseyed into town with the intention of buying up the saloon and not having the sense to work out that Buck is just going to capture her and use her as bait. Oh, and just in case in case you do get lost, geographically, the titles of the various locations are splashed over the screen in ginormous letters.
Not only is the story a mess but it’s awash with songs, some of which appear thematically or historically relevant, but most are not and one of which written by director Jeymes Samuel (making his feature debut) was chosen as the ideal accompaniment for the climax. You might as well have called this picture Anachronism City, which is a shame because all the leading characters were real people. It was maybe a stretch to find a historically-accurate story in which to feature real people, but surely it could not have been so difficult as this.
And don’t get me started on the money – $25,000 / $50,000. Really? Don’t remember Butch Cassidy or Jesse James earning that amount. Where’s all this meant to come from? Did nobody on this picture have any idea how much people earned – and therefore could save – or how much might be in a bank vault? This is pluck-an-idea-out-of-the-air screenwriting.
There’s definitely a good deal of energy on show but mostly of the music video kind. There’s explosive violence of course. And occasionally there is a decent piece of composition. And you can’t fault the acting despite the failings of the script and the tendency towards Tarantino philosophizing. But it’s pretty much a complete misfire, especially if you like your westerns.