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Though more reminiscent of Like Water for Chocolate than Free Willy, Into the West is being marketed as a kiddie flick; its pre-pubescent heroes, trumpets the film’s poster, may be “the coolest outlaws ever to ride into the west.” Those two cool kids are riding a magic horse on their way to a parental reconciliation roughly as sticky as its typical Hollywood counterpart, yet the landscape they traverse is not merely pretty. Indeed, West presents one of theharshest views of Eire of any non- I.R.A.-themed Irish film ever made.
The sorcery begins on Ireland’s wild, near-empty west coast, where Patrick Doyle’s music swells as an imposing white horse stops running free to introduce itself to an old man (David Kelly) driving a barrel-shaped wagon (a caravan, in British parlance). The horse follows the man, and soon civilization is announced by the snarl of a taking-off airplane. The man and horse are now in Dublin, where the former greets son-in-law Papa Riley (a surly Gabriel Byrne) and his sons, Ossie and Tito (Ciaran Fitzgerald and Ruaidhri Conroy).
Riley is a former “traveler,” a member of the remains of a nomadic Celtic tribe, who has settled in a dismal, high-rise public-housing project after the death of his wife. A hard drinker who loves but doesn’t pay too much attention to his kids, Riley is tired of his father-in-law’s rebukes. That’s understandable; as rendered by screenwriter Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, The Field), both men’s comments are tiresomely schematic: “We’re travelers. We don’t belong here with the settled people,” says Grandfather. “The old ways are dead,” responds Papa.
In the dreary low-income towers depicted by West, the old ways do seem dead, but director Mike Newell—presumably hired because he made a similar transition from drizzly urban malaise to sunny pastoral rapture in Enchanted April—soon sets off on a quest for several kinds of enchantment. Ossie, the younger of the boys, establishes an instant bond with the horse, who Grandfather has named Tir na nOg after the far-off land where Ossie’s namesake, legendary Gaelic warrior-bard Ossian, was offered eternal life. Tir na nOg moves into the Rileys’ tiny apartment; the boys watch TV (old westerns, of course) while sitting on the horse’s back in the living room, and bathe it in the shower stall.
A wealthy aristocrat sees Tir na nOg’s high-jumping ability in a TV-news item and arranges for a corrupt police official to confiscate the horse and turn it over to him; Papa’s protests are callously brushed aside. As a champion jumper, Tir na nOg shows up on TV again; this time, the boys see him and arrange to get him back. With Ossie and Tito on his back, Tir na nOg heads west, following a path the boys don’t understand while cannily hiding them from all pursuers, whether in helicopters or on four paws.
There’s a lot going on here thematically, and sometimes the metaphors pile up awkwardly. The boys are living out their obsession with the American western—“It’s the Rockies!” they shout upon reaching the hills of western Ireland—and rediscovering the travelers’ pagan relationship with the earth and its creatures. (Though not explicitly anti-Catholic, West clearly shows the Irish as a people both financially and spiritually oppressed by an uptight aristocracy that’s alienated from tradition.)
The boys’ journey is also designed to connect them to a specific heritage: to reconcile Papa to his wife’s death and to link Ossie to a mother he doesn’t remember. Accompanied by two travelers (including one played by Byrne’s wife, Ellen Barkin), Papa follows the itinerary Tir na nOg has selected for his sons, confronting his past at sites whose significance his boys can’t comprehend.
The Hollywood-western allusions and family-mending are familiar enough stuff, so what distinguishes West is its wrenching contrast between urban and rural, traditional and modern, Druidic and Christian. Subversion and corruption cut both ways: In one shot, a statue of the Virgin carries a “God bless the travelers” sign; in another, a TV set provides the “electronic hearth” at the center of a circle of travelers’ caravans. Though the boys travel far from the man-made post-Bauhaus wreckage of underclass Dublin, the wildness of Ireland is mostly tempered: They spend one night next to a picturesque ruin, the other in movie theater that’s merely old-fashioned; on the run through an apparently open landscape, they find themselves in the midst of a fox hunt (they hide out with the fox, their fellow prey).
It’s not necessarily true, of course, that the Irish are so detached from their heritage as West suggests; note that the film’s older actors have names like Gabriel and David, while its next generation is represented by a Ciaran and a Ruaidhri. Overburdened with themes, though, the film ultimately jettisons such meditations for family concerns, played out on a dramatic coast (as was the culmination of The Field) in a dizzy death/rebirth sequence whose symbolism is both Christian and primal. “There’s a bit of the traveler in all us; very few know where we’re goin’,” the film concludes, but fortunately that’s not always true of Into the West. Though it does ultimately swerve in the direction of such universal banalities, for a time the film charts its own course; as long it does, it’s worth following.
Bill Clinton is no John F. Kennedy either, but that realization seems to have slipped right by the makers of Undercover Blues, the sunniest espionage action-comedy since the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Perhaps scripter Ian Abrams and director Herbert Ross thought that, with the Evil Empire gone and all, it was time to stop being abashed about the moral, physical, and intellectual superiority—not to mention goldurned cuteness—of American spies. Or maybe nobody associated with this backward, brainless project thought about much of anything at all.
Undercover‘s heroes are the eponymous Jefferson and Jane Blue (Dennis Quaid and Kathleen Turner), yuppie paragons who have it all: intelligence, wit, good looks, martial-arts skills, a taste for roots music and film-buff aliases, a cute 11-month-old daughter who eats jambalaya, and really neat careers as operatives for an unidentified American secret agency. Those careers are supposed to be on hold—the couple is on extended parenting leave—but the Blues are persuaded to save the world again just this once, in exchange for a substantial bonus.
Money isn’t everything, of course, but the Blues enjoy (and deserve) the good life. Vacationing in a tourist-guide version of New Orleans, which conveniently is in the vicinity of a rogue Czech ex-spy who’s made off with some dangerous experimental explosive, the Blues eat good and party better: They crash both weddings and funerals, and the multitalented Jeff casually borrows a trumpet to jam with a street-promenading jazz band. The Blues are great at matrimony too: They love each other “more each day” and make love every night, except when they have to break into somebody’s house to look for clues or do other spy stuff. Just as the neocons argue, it’s parenthood that gives these blissful narcissists their connection to the larger world. Take ecology, for example. Visiting the Audubon Zoo, Jeff contemplates the possible extinction of tigers. “We’ll see to it,” he assures his daughter. “There’ll be lots of tigers when you grow up.”
That’s something James Bond probably didn’t worry about, but most of Undercover smells as musty as 007’s adventures and the various TV series descended from them. The Blues’ cartoonish nemesis, Novacek (Fiona Shaw), has the hots for the “foxy” (her word) Jeff: “My hat’s off to you,” he salutes her after she seems to have the upper hand. “Why not your pants?” she responds. This sort of repartee is altogether common: When a suspicious New Orleans cop says he’s discovered that the FBI considers Jeff “not bureau material,” Jeff ripostes that “I think of myself more as an armchair,” a gag even Get Smart would have given a livelier spin.
With its generous quotient of would-be hilarious accents and the occasional lisp, the movie is unafraid to poke fun at people who talk funny—you know, un-American. Czech spy, Latino mugger, and Nawlins cop are all found amusingly foreign and hence bumbling in the glare of the Blues’ whiter-than-white smiles. As much a fantasy of blithe American supercompetence as La Femme Nikita was of steely French ruthlessness, the film treats its heroes’ superiority as unironically as it does their daughter’s triumphant first steps. Thirty years too late, Undercover Blues arrives at a New Frontier of smug slapstick.