Chances are, if you’re a cinephile, you’ve heard of a good chunk of the big cult films out there. While they may be obscure in some circles, the likes of Troll 2, Eraserhead, and Death Race have been thoroughly explored by movie buffs for years. That’s what Uncharted Territory is for. In this series, we take a look off the beaten path at forgotten films that, for good or ill, deserve your attention.
You know, hunting down forgotten genre films is something of a hobby of mine. I liken it to a treasure hunt – always hoping that I’ll stumble across a real diamond in the rough, a lost classic that never got its due. Obviously, this means that I have to watch a lot of lackluster movies – and I mean a lot of lackluster movies. For every Red Sun or Gunhed, I’ve had to sit through a dozen of the likes of Don’t Go in the House, Get Mean, and Tombs of the Blind Dead. But out of every underwhelming watch I’ve witnessed, perhaps none were as disappointing as the 1998 TNT TV movie Dollar for the Dead.
While on the run from a rancher (NFL Hall of Famer Howie Mendel!), a mysterious man only referred to as Cowboy (Emilio Estéves) has a run-in with a crippled Confederate veteran the name of Dooley (William Forsythe) who lets him in on a little secret. During the last days of the Civil War, Confederate men went down to Mexico to hide a stash of their gold with hopes that one day, a new Confederate army could use those funds to re-ignite the Civil War. Naturally, stories of this lost gold have spread all around the west, and a wide variety of cut-throats are racing to find its location. Dooley happens to be among them – and he wants the Cowboy’s help.
Yes, the basic setup is suspiciously similar to the likes of Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Sergio Corbucci’s The Hellbenders, but the western homages go much further than that. It’s very clear that Dollar for the Dead is made by a genre fan, considering the near-Tarantino level of shots and elements directly lifted from other movies. From direct quotation of The Outlaw Josey Wales to Django’s coffin-concealed machine gun, it’s hard to go more than a few minutes in the film without encountering a tribute of some sort.
While the shoutouts may be cute, no amount of homages to the classics can mask Dollar for the Dead’s tremendously flawed narrative. Characters have the frustrating tendency to flip-flop personalities, and the quest for confederate gold takes a jarring backseat at around halfway through to focus on the Cowboy’s vendetta with the mysterious rancher.
Really, the weak script isn’t the problem with Dollar for the Dead’s narrative. The problem with Dollar for the Dead is Emilio Estéves as the Cowboy. Listen, Emilio Estéves is a nice guy – and that’s the issue, because nice guys don’t make for good amoral gunslingers. Every single line deliver by our antihero lacks any trace of malice to it, to the point where I honestly began to wonder if the man was even trying to go for a Clint Eastwood-type. Sure, the clothes suggest it, the story suggests it, the violence suggests it – hell, even his naming suggests it – but Estéves doesn’t act even slightly threatening. I can count the amount of times he sneers in the movie on one hand, and in a film so jam-packed with gleeful sendups and homages to a genre built around vicious antiheroes, it’s honestly baffling.
While the narrative and iconography may be grounded entirely in Euro-Western imitation, Dollar for the Dead draws its action from a completely different source – the filmography of John Woo. While other western gunslingers may prefer to stay stationary and fan the hammer, the Cowboy is quite the acrobat. Throughout the film’s numerous shootouts, you’ll see our protagonist dive, roll, twirl, flip, and corkscrew his way out of sticky situations, all with a little help from his trusty pair of revolvers.
Naturally, this new approach to action goes further than choreography. Despite the limited budget, Dollar for the Dead absolutely nails the Heroic Bloodshed aesthetic, peppering gunfights with copious amounts of slow-motion and angelic light that – with the help of a score that mixes Morricone with opera – makes the shootouts seem downright mythical. This mythic angle is furthered by the Cowboy’s almost supernatural abilities – his introduction shows him dropping a shot of whiskey and then drawing, firing, and holstering his gun just in time to catch it before it can hit the ground – and the choice to make every firearm spew brilliant sparks as substitute for muzzle flash, another throwback to Hong Kong conventions.
Sadly, Dollar for the Dead fell victim to the greatest of TV movie traps. It’s concept was just too high for its limited budget. Thanks to the usual TV budget you don’t see nearly enough of these over-the-top moments. In fact, I’d say only a little over ten minutes of Dollar for the Dead involve any sort of action, and the rest are devoted to the aforementioned lackluster narrative. With better casting and a higher budget, Dollar for the Dead really could’ve been a shining jewel in the alt-western’s crown. But as is, it’s nothing more than a failed experiment.
Purchase Dollar for the Dead on Amazon.