Sometimes movies just get a bad rap for no other reason than they decided to do something a tad left field. Take the concluding chapter of the Back To The Future Trilogy for instance, a movie that I personally cast an unnecessarily derisive eye over for years simply because all the frantic time hopping of Part II had been swapped out for a fish-out-of-water western.
Simply put, I was an idiot of Biff Tannen proportions to not recognize that Back To The Future Part III actually ends the trilogy with a sense of full bloodied adventure that’s utterly in line with all the edge of the seat excitement we’ve come to expect from the continuing adventures of Marty and Doc and while the more out-there, sci-fi aspects of the series had been funneled into a more traditional, rootin’, tootin’, pistol shootin’ romp that still dumps our leads into numerous altercations that has you teetering on the edge of your seat just like a good Back To The Future movie should.
After the events of Part II finally straightened out the shitty, alternate version of 1985 caused by the meddling of bully Biff Tannen, Marty McFly once again finds himself trapped in 1955 after Doc Emmett Brown’s flying, time travelling Delorean was struck by lightning, sending him careening back to 1885. The Doc manages to send him details from the past to where he stashed the Delorean and details on how to fix the circuits but also leaves instructions not to come and rescue him as he’s content being a blacksmith in the old west – however, both 1955 Doc and Marty are shocked to discover that 1885 Doc was shot barely a week after sending his message.
After getting the Delorean up to spec, Marty zaps back to 1885, horribly unprepared for life in the old West and after being taken in by his ancestor, Sheamus McFly, he heads into town and immediately runs into the man who is due to shoot Brown in the back, none other than Buford ‘Mad Dog’ Tannen, an ancestor of (who else) notorious bully Biff, who makes his distant relative look like a pussy cat in comparison.
Saved by the Doc, Marty warns him about his upcoming demise, but their getaway is stalled by two factors. The first is the fuel line is ruptured and because the first gas station isn’t likely to be built for another 100 years, Brown only has a week to figure out how to get the Delorean up to the necessary speed to time jump. The second is that school teacher Clara Clayton enters Brown’s life and it’s instantly love at first sight, something that Marty fears is taking Doc’s eye off the ball; however, Marty has some serious problems of his own as his inability to back down from a fight means that he’s the one now in Tannen’s gunfight.
So to address my petty issues back in 1989, imagine this: I’m sitting in a cinema as Back To The Future Part II wraps up it’s impossibly complex plot with a cliff hanger that saw Marty needing to 1885 and the legend bearing the words “To Be Concluded” appear on the screen. What came next was a quick, makeshift trailer that announced that the next adventure would indeed see our chronologically displaced heroes hijacking trains and riding horses and even though it meant that I wouldn’t see first hand how the saga would end (even though the footage showed Marty in cowboy garb blatantly hugging Elisabeth Shue’s Jennifer in 1985), I foolish made the choice right then and there to not go see the movie in a year’s time. My reasons, I was young, stupid and at that point in my life I simply couldn’t stand westerns and the fact that the franchise was swapping out flying cars and hoverboards for ponchos and six shooters meant that I was a hard pass. Of course, if I was handed the keys to a time travelling Delorean now, one of the many things I would go back and address would be to give my younger self a paradoxical butt kicking and get that ignorant little shit into a cinema in 1990 when he bloody well belonged, because even though I still regard Part III as the least of the trilogy, it’s still a massively satisfying climax that contains the sort of peppy fun any self respecting adventure franchise would kill for.
Yes, it’s a surprisingly calmer, more straight forward ending than the over achieving, hyperactive nature of Part II, but I now realise that not every story has to end by going bigger and more intense and a nice, good old fashioned adventure/comedy western is just what the Doc ordered to close things off in style.
Untethered by having to juggle multiple peroids, evil alternate timelines and trying how to figure out how to have many of the actors play multiple members of their own family on screen at the same time, Part III finds relative relaxation in the simple pleasures of merely being shot by an outlaw while having ample time to drop in the numerous callbacks and huge, crowd pleasing culture shocks that the franchise likes to indulge in (Marty amusingly adopts the alias Clint Eastwood to minimal impact).
Admittedly, not all of it works. You could complain that Part III adds nothing to the franchise other than simply sticking the basic beats of the first film into a western setting, also the gag of having Michael J. Fox play his own Irish ancestor, Sheamus, means that both him and Lea Thompson as his wife unleash the worst “oy-rish” accents heard in a nineties movie until Tom Cruise in Far And Away.
Of course, these are mere snags in a movie that keeps up the BTTF tradition of big laughs and nail biting scrapes and gives director Robert Zemeckis a nice little vacation from altering the face of cinema thanks to painstaking digital trickery and lets him stage some fun set pieces. Also, there’s a pleasant surprise in store when you realise that this movie gives Christopher Lloyd’s panic stricken scientist more emotional stuff to play with due to the addition of Mary Steenburgen’s Jules Vern loving teacher. Not only does Brown become a genuinely sweet, middle-aged romantic lead (somewhat of a rarity for 90’s blockbusters) but it gives Brown much more depth which gives the beloved character actor more to do than scream a lot, breathlessly power through endless exposition and bark “Great scott!” at opportune moments.
There’s a slight sense that as a result, Marty is somewhat marginalised, but luckily he’s got Thomas F. Wilson’s funniest incarnation of the Tannen dynasty yet as the dim but brutish Mag Dog who still can’t get his sayings right (“I’ll hunt you and shoot you down like a duck!”, “It’s “dog“, Buford.”) and manages to chew the scenery with pantomime-like glee.
There’s a genuinely sweet sense of history here too, as we not only see the infamous clock tower of Hill Valley being built (our leads even have a crude photo taken in front of it in a touching subtle moment), but Marty gets some much needed advice on how to curb that temper of his thanks to his passive ancestor which predictably comes in handy when tying up a loose lead from Part II. Also, the ultimate destruction of the Delorean is a surprisingly harrowing plot point that firmly tells us that this is, indeed, the definitive end, despite the fact that Doc, Clara and their two boys are rocketing around history on their conceptually silly, time travelling train (a Delorean I can except, but a flying fucking steam engine?).
Back To The Future is one of those rare franchises that is yet to succumb to the nostalgic beckoning of a legacy sequel and that’s thanks to the quadrilogy blocking efforts of Zemeckis who quite simply won’t allow one as long as he’s breathing which means that the pleasures of the previously misunderstood Part III will forever remain evergreen.
So, despite my earlier misgivings about the movie, I finally and rightfully came round to the correct way of thinking by embracing the final installment as the rollicking adventure it truly is.
And all it took was just a little time…