Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid may be one of the most charismatic westerns – nay, films – ever made which is cemented even further by having one of the most memorable endings around. As a highly romanticized account of the legendary robbers, George Roy Hill’s is very model of a stand-alone movie, but that doesn’t mean we can’t wildly speculate about what happened to the actual Butch and Sundance, which brings us to 2011’s Blackthorne that gets stuck in when asking some tantalising questions. What if that climactic hail of bullets hadn’t finished our bantering duo? What if one had survived into old age?
This intriguing scenario initially leads to a bit of confusion as it’s tough to separate it from the 1969 classic, but if truth be told Blackthorn is technically no more a sequel to Butch and Sundance than Doctor Sleep is to the Shining. They concern the same characters and the some of the same details, but both are very different movies.
After narrowly surviving a brush with the Bolivan army twenty years earlier, Butch Cassidy has settled down to a quiet life rearing horses in a secluded village under the name James Blackthorn, but still yearns to return to the States. When the news that Etta Place – the girlfriend of his late partner in crime the Sundance Kid – has died from tuberculosis while leaving a child behind, James finally decides to return home and promptly sells his horses.
However, he’s barely even started his journey when he has a fateful encounter with Eduardo Apodaca, a Spanish mining engineer who is on the run after claiming he stole $50,000 from an incredibly powerful Bolivian industrialist who owned the mine and Eduardo ends up begging the tired Blackthorn for his aid – offering to compensate him for his savings lost in their skirmish. Feeling the old pangs of adventure stirred up by Apodaca’s tale of sticking it to the man, Blackthorn helps the Spaniard and eventually bonds with the dude as the try and stay one step ahead of the sizable posse on Eduardo’s trail.
Despite both taking refuge back at his Bolivian homestead, two female members of the posse lay a trap for the two leaving Blackthorn injured, but after a fair amount of flashbacks that have him reminiscing about his relationship with Sundance, he and Eduardo forge a path through the Uyuni salt flats where they finally engage the posse, but after the two are separated, James finds himself in the company of old, Pinkerton detective named MacKinley who informs him that Aposada may not be the big hearted criminal he claims to be…
So, if Blackthorn has an overarching problem, it’s mostly caused by the vast shadow cast by the spectre of Paul Newman and Robert Redford – as much as I tried, I simply could not set aside the original classic and enjoy this movie purely on its own merits. It’s a noticable problem because the stripped back, mournful and grizzled style of Blackthorn allows absolutely no sense of frivolity whatsoever and if you’re still clinging to visions of a playful bike ride to the strains of Burt Bacharach, then destined to be disappointed. Now while this isn’t technically Blackthorn’s fault (although the actor playing the young Sundance in flashbacks has a suspiciously Robert Redford-y moustache), it takes quite a while to adjust to this non-romanticized look at the famous outlaw.
It’s here where we unsurprisingly find the movie’s crown jewel as a pained looking Sam Sheppard delivers a performance whose horse mounted saddle bags are loaded to the brim with introspection and regret. His subtle and underplayed approach may duel with Newman’s wisecracking younger model in your head, but if anything in this movie can dispel the ghost of that other movie, it’s good old Sam, but while we’re on the subject of older models, it’s a surprise to see Game Of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau playing the young Butch as we’re given some legend changing looks at the dying days of his outlaw career.
In comparison to Sheppard quietly holding the screen, everyone else seems like footnotes in comparison which in some cases is odd (it’s not often that Stephen Rea blends into the background) and others is problematic. While it does admittedly give the sensation that everyone is just drifting through Blackthorn’s world as he negotiates his winter years, it also means that Eduardo Noriega’s performance as the opportunistic thief in training doesn’t quite pop as it should, especially as it’s his situation which stirs up the old fires in the once and former Cassidy.
Director Mateo Gil, in his English language debut, maybe keeps things a bit too subdued despite having quite an orginal eye for typical western iconography, but he goes some way to make up for it with the scenes set against the blazing, white plains of the Uyni salt flats. The sight of horses galloping across a blinding landscape framed by an incredible blue sky fiercely stand out by being quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a western before and it’s a stark contrast to the green, misty Bolivian mountains where Blackthorn has exiled himself.
Still, despite the lush visuals and a rock solid central performance, Blackthorn lacks a certain flare when in comes to the inevitable gunplay, feeling glibly matter of fact when it should instead have some fire in it’s step as Blackthorn’s remaining enthusiasm gains momentum – but while none of this is too damaging, this sober look at an aging legend simply doesn’t feel particularly essential when compared to the many other westerns that deal with former gunslingers getting regretful and old. The final revelation that (spoiler) Eduardo has, in fact, stolen all that money from mining families and not some fat cat industrialist proves to Butch that his time has emphatically long since passed, but but this supposed earth shaking fact is delivered with all the measured pondering that everything else has – including the fact the Butch has son and that it was he who killed a wounded Sundance as a mercy killing.
A stately pace and heaps of gravitas helps to make Blackthorn’s central performance shine, but try as you might you simply can’t put the earlier, more dashing versions of the historical rogue out of your mind.