Wednesday, February 20, 2019

North Star (1996)

Nome, Alaska, 1899. When evil mining magnate Sean McLennon (James Caan) isn’t quoting Shakespeare, badly, or babbling the sort of “keep America pure” rhetoric one expects to culminate in him wanting to build a wall around Alaska, he’s doing his best to acquire a monopoly in the local mining business. In a couple of weeks he’s going to dispossess all foreign-born small claim owners, but before that he’s already letting his henchmen Reno (Burt Young) and Smiley (Morten Faldaas) loose to just murder anyone who doesn’t want to sell their claims to him.

One of his prospective victims is half Native American Hudson Saanteek (Christopher “totally Indian” Lambert). In what must have felt like a clever move at the time, Hudson has staked a claim on the holy land of his tribe to keep it out of the hands of prospectors. Alas, this only leads to his grandfather getting shot during his dying ceremony, and Hudson being left for dead by McLennon’s not terribly competent people when they try to murder him.

Hudson’s not going to let this sort of things slide, obviously, but his plan to get to Nome and – one presumes – either unmask McLennon’s evil plans or kill him (the film ain’t telling) somehow ends with him kidnapping McLennon’s girlfriend Sarah (Catherine McCormack) whose main job seems to be to read McLennon to sleep with the works of the Bard. McLennon gets together a small posse, and hunt through the icy wilderness ensues.

The 1990s were, apart from a few exceptions, a very bad decade for the Western, so a British, French, Italian, and Norwegian co-production shot in that snowy twin country of Alaska we know as Norway, directed by a Norwegian with a French actor pretending to be Native American in the lead may even sound like a proposal strange enough to add something to a genre nobody in the 90s had much time for. Particularly when the film in question is directed by Nils Gaup, whose brilliant Pathfinder – not to be confused with the horrid remake that isn’t one – amply demonstrates a sensibility that should work rather well with Western tropes, and most certainly with scenes of people chasing each other through the snow.

Unfortunately, the actual film we got is a complete mess, apparently written by six people, none of whom seems to have had any idea what kind of film they actually wanted to make. So characterisation and motivations shift and twist from scene to scene. One minute, McLennon is a walking-talking criticism of capitalism and racism, the next he’s portrayed as a man with a genuine mental illness, the next he’s a moustache-twirling villain who seems to believe Macbeth is his play’s hero (the last bit played with clear relish by Caan in full scenery-chewing mode); characters are introduced only to then do nothing but hang around in the background of some scenes; Hudson never does anything that makes even a lick of sense; the happy end (“yay, martial law!”, the film cheers) borders on the absurd, and so on and so forth.

Not surprisingly, the pacing is completely off too, with nary a scene that isn’t either too long or too short for what one assumes it is trying to achieve in the plot, if it is trying to achieve anything at all. Things just happen without any palpable thought given to whys and wherefores, as if three or four very different drafts of this thing had just been mashed together by a random intern. It’s rather puzzling, too, for while Norway was probably a cheaper place to shoot in than Alaska, the film clearly wasn’t a seat-of-your-pants production but something made by actual professionals on what must have been a decent budget. It rather feels like a Dino DeLaurentiis production, but Dino was, for once, innocent.

The acting’s all over the place too, which isn’t much of a surprise given the variable characterisation of everyone and everything here. While Caan’s decision to go all out is certainly amusing, it doesn’t help make the film any more coherent either, and though I certainly like Lambert and his minimalist approach to acting, he’s really not the kind of actor able to conjure up an engaging performance out of nothing, which is all the script provides. Young and McCormack are totally wasted here, too.

Particularly puzzling is how little the film shows of Gaup’s talents at snow-bound action; even when it comes to scenes of dog-sleds chasing each other through the ice and snow, the pacing and rhythm of the film is so off, things feel as gripping and dramatic as somebody reading stock market prices aloud.

I have no idea what happened with this production, but the end result is utterly dreadful.

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