In 2018, a wildfire tore through California, burning homes and woodland areas to ash as it raged. Of the many things destroyed, the one most closely linked to cinema history was the Paramount Ranch. Purchased in the 1920s, the Paramount Ranch was built up over the years, becoming home to television productions like Westworld and films like Scream, American Sniper, and The Great Outdoors. The last film to be produced there was director Timothy Woodward Jr.’s The Outsider, a blood-soaked vengeance tale harkening back to the days of westward expansion. In spite of losing their set due to the fire, the production carried on, delivering a well-intentioned love-letter of a film to the westerns of old.
Pioneering and westward expansion are hallmarks of American history. They symbolize the desire to carve our own path, create our own future, and manifest our destiny. That promise of hope is what keeps Jing Phang (Jon Foo) and his wife Li (Nelli Tsay) going as Jing works the railroad line to set tracks for the incoming railway. Unfortunately, Li catches the eye of Deputy James Walker (Kaiwi Lyman), who abuses his power to imprison Jing as a means of getting Li alone. Consumed by rage, Jing vows vengeance on James, setting into motion a whirlwind of violence which brings both men to the brink.
Frequent collaborators Woodward Jr. and writer Sean Ryan (WEAPONiZED) crafted a tale that is as much a timely reminder of the deep-rooted racism which has long been a driving force in the creation of the nation as it is a throwback to Westerns of old. Even though the script’s pacing requires propulsive motion throughout virtually the entire piece, the language and tone of The Outsider allows for opportunities, albeit small ones, to enable the narrative to confront some of the demons from our nation’s past. In this regard, by weaponizing that history, The Outsider also is able to shorthand much of the set-up without diminishing the emotionality. Though a touch convoluted, the opening is structured, by Woodward Jr., as a series of vignettes which play out in between the credits. Some scenes are longer than others and time appears as a fluid construct, making some aspects a touch confusing before it becomes more linear and concrete. Despite this stylistic approach to speed through the content, the emotional undertones are deftly presented.
Adding to the gravitas is county singer/actor Trace Adkins (Deepwater Horizon) as Marshal Walker, a man of honor caught between his badge and parenthood. Doesn’t matter if the marshal is asking general questions or making threats, Adkins’s deep growl remains a constant, suggestive of a man whose mere presence demands respect. Through Adkins’s performance, the marshal becomes a sympathetic character, on that, in many ways, the audience most clings to. This creates a strange dissonance as Foo’s Jing should feel like the primary, yet the amount of time spent with the marshal in contrast to Jing conflicts with this. Even as Jing shifts to a more prominent position when the narrative pivots to action over character-focused drama, Foo rarely feels like the center of the action. This is further evidenced by the inclusion of Sean Patrick Flannery’s (The Boondock Saints) tracker Christian King, a western trope of a character who’s reluctant to participate in the action. Considering the narrative’s catalyst revolves around Jing’s family, the fact that the narrative itself introduces four central characters with an imbalance in focus makes rooting for any of them difficult. Thankfully, the performances from each actor are compelling enough to retain the audience’s focus. Word of caution for fans of Danny Trejo (Machete): blink and you will miss him.
Character focus isn’t the only issue with The Outsider. If it were, the film would at least serve as an engaging modern western. Another area of fluctuation is a preference of style over substance in the direction. As a western, there’re plenty of gun fights, yet few of them feel tethered to reality. Take a moment when Chris grabs a gun to defend himself. He sees the gun behind him, dives, and stands with it pointed. The intent is for it to seem like a daring moment of self-preservation, yet, in the presentation, it’s slow and easy to read. Thankfully there’s a reason embedded in the narrative as to why Chris survives the altercation – and it’s part of a creatively designed scene – but it’s merely one of several moments which seem designed to look interesting without making sense. In a similar vein, Foo, a capable fighter trained in kung fu and wushu, is given several moments to showcase his physical training, except each one is highly edited to suggest action whereas a long cut of continued movement would create greater impact. The fact that so many fight scenes are edited in this manner hinders the effectiveness of intent. Rather than being a visceral moment of physical violence, much of Foo’s action is reduced to feeling staged and limp.
Taken as a nostalgic trip to tales of the Old West, The Outsider possesses great promise. It boldly presents a time as it likely was: full of moral compromises as good men allow bad things to happen. There’s some great character work by Adkins and Flannery and a narrative which is at its most effective when Woodward Jr. stops trying to be impactful and just captures the action. When this happens, when he lingers too long and maintains some stillness, that’s when the real weight of the narrative takes hold.
In select theaters, on VOD, and digital June 14th, 2019.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.