“Why should I tell you?” A badly injured ranch hand asks, as the man who shot him enquires for directions. “Because if you don’t I’ll let you live” is the blunt, disarming reply. It’s an odd (if witty) exchange, yet somehow feels very appropriate to the Western Genre, and as such serves as the perfect introduction to the unusual, uneven but enjoyable mishmash that is Quigley Down Under.
One of a comparatively small number of Australia set westerns; the film puts its $20 million budget to good, if not great effect, whilst the Likeable leads, simple story and well-staged (if sporadic) gunfights work in the film’s favour. Despite its setting, this is in most respects a very formulaic western, and as such will prove enjoyable, and accessible for easy-going fans of the genre.
By the same token, this film unfortunately does come across as clichéd, and arguably, a wasted opportunity. The script by John Hill was drafted and redrafted from the mid 70’s through to the late 80’s, and it shows, whilst the dialogue often indicates signs of fresh inspiration (there are a few sharp one liners), the central plot veers between predictability (the ending can be guessed 20 minutes in) and surprising at regular intervals, plot holes are few, but even at this length (119 minutes) the film feels padded.
The Australian scenery, whilst interesting (the film was shot entirely in Australia) rarely looks massively different to American landscapes (scrubland is replaced by sandier scrubland), and isn’t utilised as well as it could have been, at points in the film it’s hard to see why the filmmakers bothered filming down under, if they wanted endless desert, and jagged rocks there’s always Texas…
The subplot about the plight of Aborigine people often feels shoehorned into the film, and may make uncomfortable or annoying viewing for some audiences (Why would An American Cowboy known to track and kill ‘Indians’ feel any differently about Australia’s native race than the ‘evil’ British?), whilst the constant references to the US and American westerns do not always justify inclusion (Would a wealthy British Landowner really be obsessed, and know that much about the American Frontier?), and draw attention away from the central plot.
Put simply the film doesn’t quite work, it’s enjoyable when it sticks to the western formula-but also becomes very predictable and slightly annoying, and when it tries to be ‘clever’ or different it can come across as confused or indulgent. It’s not hard to see why the film flopped on release, as a memorable, whole film it doesn’t succeed…but then again, its separate ‘parts’ almost always entertain, and the film is never really as ‘boring’ or bad as it threatens to be.
The film launches almost immediately into the easy to follow plot. Tom Selleck (not perhaps an obvious choice for a western) portrays American Cowboy and Sharpshooter Matthew Quigley. Responding to an newspaper advert asking for men with a special talent for long distance shooting (with the words ‘Matthew Quigley 900 Yards’ and a few carefully placed bullet holes illustrating his reply), he boards a ship to Australia, taking his prized, heavily modified rifle (and strong accent) with him.
Arriving in the Continent he is driven to the home of Cold Hearted, Frontier obsessed British Cattle Baron Elliott Marston (Alan Rickman on typically sneering form in one of his characteristic ‘bad guy’ roles), and receives his assignment- to track down and kill the increasingly hard to find Aborigines residing upon Marston’s estate
Appalled by the suggestion Marston refuses; knocked unconscious he is unceremoniously dumped in the outback with fellow (how convenient!) American, and love interest ‘Crazy Cora’ (An appropriate nickname) (Laura San Giacomo). Quickly recovering his wits Marston puts his rifle (luckily that was brought along as well) to its first major use in a taut (if one sided) gunfight with several of Marston’s generic (and apparently quite disposable) henchmen. Cora is gushing with her thanks to the man she calls ‘Roy’ (the reasons why she addresses him as such are explained later in the film, but don’t make it any less annoying).
The duo is forced to fight back against his former employer, friends are made along the way, associates are killed and clichés are featured prominently before the film builds to a final, exciting showdown.
As this brief synopsis illustrates it’s a simple straightforward story, with little room to spare for character development or sub plots, it’s largely obvious where the story is headed, and only a small cast is used to get there.
The two leads work well together, sharing a convincing chemistry and putting in good performances (Giacomo is particularly good); their scenes together are fun to watch even if the ‘love story’ unravels a little quickly. Rickman is decent as usual in his role, though the character and somewhat limited screen time hardly stretch his acting muscles, the sparse interaction between Quigley and Marston is enjoyable to watch, though there isn’t enough to care about massively, and it arguably makes the ending devoid of much impact.
‘No animals were killed or injured during the making of this film’ it states during the closing credits, it’s unnecessary, but understandable why some viewers could think so, the chase and stunt sequences in the film, whilst not overly prevalent are staged and shot convincingly and bring a lot of excitement to the film. A combination of practical effects, camera trickery and stunt performers are utilised, as they are with the gunfights.
In Quigley down under they are relatively spare and a little one sided (Quigley’s skill with a rifle reportedly led Army Snipers to refer to the act of killing two targets with one bullet as a ‘Quigley’), but paced, shot and edited well- with the exception of one cheesy, unnecessary montage. Although slapped with a 15 Certificate in the UK, the film is relatively low or gore or coarse language, so shouldn’t be too much of a gruesome watch for most viewers.
A functional, but hardly ground-breaking musical score is utilised, and the film is mercifully low on ‘goofs’.
In conclusion Quigley Down Under is a bit of a mixed bag; it works well in parts, but falls flat on its face in others. It is never as clever as it thinks it is, the pace and storyline could have been tightened, but it maintains a fun tone throughout, and technically and visually the film is quite impressive. In short Quigley Down under is a flawed, fun film, that genre fans will probably have a lot of enjoyment in watching, and it remains a film that most audiences can appreciate as straightforward entertainment.
Not a classic, but far from forgettable this merits a 6/10 Paul Ashwell