Every Western fan worth a plug nickel knows the classic ending to the legendary 1969 “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid.” Wounded, vastly outnumbered and running low on ammo, Butch and Sundance charge dozens of Bolivian soldiers. The movie ends on a freeze frame shot as the sound of the soldiers repeatedly firing on the pair gets louder and louder. The conclusion we can draw is plain.
But there have been claims that continue to this day that neither of them died in Bolivia and that Butch and Sundance returned to the United States to live out their lives in peace. It’s certainly an intriguing theory and one that most people would like to believe as we all like to see likeable rogues and scoundrels get away with it. BLACKTHORN explores this possibility. It’s certainly not a direct sequel to “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid” but there’s no getting around the fact that a lot of people are going to view it as such. And in truth the movie does have a couple of flashbacks to the young Butch and Sundance that attempt to recapture the mood and freewheeling attitude of the earlier film. But BLACKTHORN doesn’t need the flashbacks. It’s good enough to stand on its own feet without the earlier movie to give it a prop-up.
Twenty years after his supposed death, Butch Cassidy (Sam Shepard) is still alive and well and living in Bolivia. Under the name James Blackthorn he’s had some success as a horse breeder in the region. Enough success that he’s got enough money to return to the United States at last. He wants to see familiar faces and places in whatever time he’s got left.
The plan goes gang aft aglay when Blackthorn is ambushed by Eduardo Apodaca (Eduardo Noreiga) who claims he is being hunted by a posse and thought Blackthorn was with them. Apodaca tells Blackthorn that he’s stolen $50,000 from Simon Patino, a mine owner and the most powerful man in that region. Eduardo offers to share part of the money with Blackthorn if Blackthorn helps him get away from the posse.
The recovering of the loot, which Eduardo has stashed away in an abandoned mine and evading the relentless pursuit of the posse revives his memories of his Butch Cassidy days and Blackthorn finds himself enjoying reliving his outlaw life. Maybe too much as he comes to the attention of former Pinkerton detective MacKinley (Stephen Rea) who once followed Butch and Sundance all the way down to Bolivia. MacKinley never was convinced that it was actually Butch and Sundance who died in that showdown and he’s determined to get the Bolivian army to help him track James Blackthorn down and prove that the gringo riding with the Spanish bandit is actually Butch Cassidy.
BLACKTHORN has a lot going for it. First of all, the locations are absolutely gorgeous. It was filmed in Bolivia and the country is absolutely magnificent. Westerns should look big with plains that go on forever and mountains that scrape the bottom of clouds and this movie does have that. I liked the twists and turns the story takes, especially at the end where we learn a few truths about both Eduardo and Blackthorn. And yes, the movie explains what happened to both The Sundance Kid and Etta Place and I could have done without it. The fate of The Sundance Kid especially left a bad blot in my brain.
It’s easy to forget or overlook just how really good of an actor Sam Shepard is. I’m always a sucker for a story like this where a grizzled old gunslinger proves that despite his age he’s still one up on whippersnappers half his age. And apparently Butch has gotten better as a shot as in not only “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid” but also “Butch and Sundance: The Early Days” Butch is depicted as being not a good shot at all. But here in BLACKTHORN he demonstrates astonishingly proficient skill as a marksman. Only Sam Elliot can play grizzled better than Sam Shepard who is most certainly no slouch here. I like how as the movie unfolds, he first enjoys being back on the outlaw trail, especially in a nice little scene where he sings the old ballad ‘Sam Hall’ while riding with Eduardo to his hideout but quickly comes to remember why Butch Cassidy had to die and why he should stay dead.
Eduardo Noreiga is the weakest actor in the movie. He tries hard and it’s way too obvious that he’s trying to imitate the Butch and Sundance partnership from the earlier movie and it just doesn’t work. Stephen Rea is much better as the disgraced Pinkerton who has let his obsession with the outlaws turn him into an alcoholic wreck. I’d have loved to see more scenes between Shepard and Rea.
So should you see BLACKTHORN? I’m going to tell you right up front that it’s not a wall-to-wall-shoot-‘em-up and actually is quite slow in spots. But that was okay by me because it isn’t that type of Western. I’d recommend it just for the Sam Shepard and Stephen Rea performances and the amazing cinematography alone. I say give it a try, especially if you’re a long time Western fan like me. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
Magnolia Pictures/Universal Pictures
Directed by Mateo Gil
Written by Miguel Barros
Produced by Andres Santana and Paolo Agazzi