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The Old Way review – falling off a horse would be more fun

Nicolas Cage gives one of his laziest performances yet in this crudely made and largely joyless western hodgepodge

Three words: “Nic Cage western.” An elevator pitch stocked with such inherent, gut-punch appeal, it's a genuine wonder it hasn't been done before. But Brett Donowho's The Old Way, the first of two Nic Cage westerns coming our way in 2022 (the other being an adaptation of John Williams' seminal novel Butcher's Crossing), is a cheap and lethargic disappointment, a throwback without any backbone, crudely culled from the carcasses of other, superior westerns like True Grit and Unforgiven.

Cage plays gunslinger Colton Briggs, “the meanest son of a bitch who ever was,” seen mercilessly gunning down a dozen men in the prologue. Twenty years later he's a changed man, tamed by his wife (Kerry Knuppe), and now living in peace with their young daughter, Brooke (Ryan Kiera Armstrong). Briggs' simple existence is soon burned to the ground, though, when his wife is brutally murdered – an act of violence that inevitably reignites the cold killer within. So Briggs – daughter in tow – saddles up to hunt down the man responsible (Noah Le Gros), another gunslinger with vengeance in his heart.

Rudimentary enough, but what of Cage? Well, anyone hoping a foray into new territory might bring out a new or interesting side in its leading man will be disappointed: Cage might be wearing a cowboy hat, but he shows little of the nuance or commitment he displayed in the recent, superior revenge yarn Pig. Instead he spends the majority of the runtime looking like he's running through lines in rehearsal, using his gunslinger's stoic demeanour as an excuse to do as little acting as possible.

And where a film like Pig broke down the conventions of the revenge narrative into delicious, unexpected morsels, The Old Way embraces them to a fault; this is about as linear a western story as you'll find. Westerns can thrive on formula, of course, but only when they employ a basic level of competence at the same time. The Old Way's characters are cornbread and the tropes here reek like the back end of a horse: how many times do we need to watch somebody learning to fire a gun by shooting an item off a fence post? Subversion isn't always required when tackling this genre in the modern day – but this western is never even fun as a straight exercise.

Because Cage is doing so little, the film hangs weightlessly, and any interesting threads – Briggs' and Brooke's acknowledgement of what appears to be a mutual lack of empathy from birth – are picked up and then abandoned. The slow pace and surprisingly lack of action isn't helped by Donowho's tendency to place the camera seemingly at random, or Andrew Morgan Smith's overtly self-referential score, which threatens to push the movie into outright parody. Pray the forthcoming Butcher's Crossing shoots a little straighter – and that Cage bothers to show up in more than just a physical sense.

The Old Way is released in UK cinemas and digital platforms on 13 January.

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