The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976, Clint Eastwood) – Long before he ever staged the world’s saddest outhouse killing in Unforgiven (and even before he made friends with a monkey), Clint Eastwood got into the ol’ revisionist Western game with The Outlaw Josey Wales. That’s not to say that the film is nearly as dark or nihilistic a take on the boy’s matinee genre, in fact it’s a somewhat optimistic take on the Western by Eastwood’s standards. Of course, it doesn’t start that way. The film opens harshly with Eastwood’s family slaughtered and his house burned to the ground at the hands of some bandit Union soldiers. He quickly trains himself into a crack shot and joins up with Confederate soldiers to seek revenge, killing his way through everything in sight for years and then refusing to surrender to the man responsible for his family’s death at the end of the war, instead trying to slaughter the jerk and his troupes singlehandedly. He eventually takes off with a wounded young soldier and is trailed by reluctant assassin and former partner (evil Animal House dean John Vernon). It’s worth noting at this point that what I just described constitutes roughly the first fifteen minutes of the film.
So far, it’s your standard hyper-violent Clint Eastwood Western (albeit a great one), then gradually the film grows and matures, not unlike Eastwood himself as a filmmaker. Eastwood’s Josey Wales rides his way to Texas and freedom, piling up a body count to match several slasher movie favorites and small-scale warlords along the way. Then over the course of the journey, he starts collecting a group of waifs and strays along the road who would have been victimized were it not for Wales’ way with a gun. He ends up with a small community and decides to give up his cold-blooded streak and attempt to build a home again with the motley crew. Of course, there will inevitably be a final shoot out as is genre convention, but not before Eastwood was able to deconstruct his silent killer image and find a human heart beneath the macho posturing. It’s a kick ass action movie that with a cold and harsh view of the West, yet also a film about the futility of violence and war laced a wicked streak of dark humor. This is Eastwood’s first truly great movie as a director and also one of his finest performances. In an odd way, his masterpiece Unforgiven about a reformed Clint becoming a killer again is almost a thematic sequel to The Outlaw Josey Wales and the underrated 1976 effort should not be ignored by any fans of that film (interestingly, Eastwood found and purchased the script to Unforgiven around the same time he made Josey Wales only to sit on it until he was old enough to play the role).
Warner Brothers new Blu-ray treats The Outlaw Josey Wales like the classic it’s become over the years. The transfer is gorgeous with the grand vistas and warm fall hues of perfectly rendered in HD. The studio treats their classic releases well and this is no exception, coming in one of those glossy Digibook packages filled with production notes. Full time Clint Eastwood expert and occasional film critic Richard Schickel contributes one of his usual impassioned audio commentaries, filled with an obsessive attention to detail. Two features are carried over from the DVD, a vintage 70s documentary worth looking at only for the archival onset footage and a rather excellent 30-minute making of documentary narrated by John Milius that covers everything you’d want to know about the film (well, except for the lack of involvement from original director and screenwriter Philip Kaufman who Eastwood fired and replaced after a few days, but that I suppose makes sense). The only new feature is a documentary dedicated to Clint Eastwood’s career of contributions to the Western that’s interesting, but at only 30 minutes long with over a dozen movies to cover it’s not very in depth. Still, it’s a great set for an underrated movie that probably would be better known if it hadn’t come out in the 70s when the genre fell out of favor and every year at the movies seemed to be overflowing with masterpieces. (Phil Brown)
ECW Unreleased, Volume 1 – When most people think of the phenomenon and meteoric pop culture rise of ECW – Extreme Championship Wrestling – most people probably choose to focus on some of the promotion’s more bloody and death defying matches, but what a lot of casual wrestling fans fail to realize is that some genuinely great old school wrestling took place in the ECW Arena in South Philly.
Now that the ECW archives have become the property of the WWE, the latest Blu-ray and DVD release from the former “land of extreme” focuses on preserving matches previously unavailable on DVD or since the VHS days. Hosted by ECW stalwart Joey Styles, this two disc blu-ray set includes the little seen birth of the promotion which wasn’t as “extreme” as many might believe. It was a simple mission statement made by Shane Douglas following a title unification match between Eastern Championship Wrestling and the now defunct NWA.
The first of the two discs focuses more on the athletic feats of ECW wrestlers with some classic encounters between Dean Malenko and the late Eddie Guerrero, Chris Jericho going against 2 Cold Scorpio, and two matches featuring the team of Rob Van Dam and Sabu going up against The Eliminators (featuring a younger Perry Saturn) and Hayabusa and Jinsei Shinzaki. There’s also a match on the disc between the notoriously gritty Mick Foley persona Cactus Jack against Shane Douglas that, while fairly hardcore, only scratches the surface of the direction ECW was about to go in.
The second disc starts off with arguably the best match of the set, a knock down drag out fight between Douglas and Tazz that brings the house down and leaves no stone unturned in terms of telling the story of a match. Mike Awesome and Masato Tanaka elevate the typical extreme wrestling style to an artform, bringing some Japanese extremism to the states beautifully. Following that match, there’s the interesting tale of a match between Tommy Dreamer and the then WWE contracted Tazz to keep the title in the company during a time of turmoil. That one’s not much of a match, really, but the emotion behind it was pretty real despite the litany of bleeps for the cursing involved at the end… just before Justin Credible snaps and forces another match seconds after it ends.
Such was to be expected from ECW and unpredictability was the standard, but fewer organizations have had their athletes put their lives on the line like the extremists did. It would’ve been nice to hear from long time ECW honcho Paul Heyman (or even a little more from Styles, as his vignettes are genuinely insightful and thoughtful), and maybe Blu-ray isn’t the best way to experience the gritty, lo-fi quality of what feels like it was often filmed with camcorders (albeit from some great and hard to get angles), and the two blu-ray only bonus matches add very little, but overall for straight up wrestling, it’s a pretty excellent collection. (Andrew Parker)