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‘Posse’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 14, 1993

If Mario Van Peebles had simply followed through on his impulse to do a spoofy, rapper variation on the spaghetti western, "Posse" might have been both funny and exciting -- a mindless, great time.

You can just imagine it, a "Homes on the Range," starring Van Peebles as Jessie, a sort of Man With No Name figure -- dressed all in black with bolero hat and poncho, his six-shooters blazing -- thundering across the dry prairies with his "Young Guns" bunch of gangster rappers (renegade soldiers from the Confederacy) riding alongside him.

In other words, "Posse" is a great idea for a movie, but rarely has such a solid idea been exploited with greater indifference or lack of imagination.

From the looks of it, Van Peebles -- who is both star and director here (he made an impressive feature debut with "New Jack City") -- was eager to tackle something weightier than a mere spoof. In "Posse," he wanted to deal with the role of African Americans -- particularly black cowboys -- in settling the West. Unfortunately, Van Peebles has tried to make both movies at the same time, and the mix is atrociously off-key.

In tone, the movie wobbles between parody and seriousness. In places, it's trashy and does to the Sergio Leone western what "Hot Shots" did to "Top Gun." It sends up that genre's proto-mythological pretensions to existential depth by turning the terse, macho postering into a joke. The film's underlying spirit is far too heavy for its broadly comic lighter side, yet too glib for the moments when the picture wants to take itself seriously.

The film's dark aspect is by far its weaker side. Gradually we learn that Jessie is on a mission, which is to return to his home town to even the score with the white racists who savagely beat and killed his preacher father. But the flashback scenes Van Peebles stages to illustrate Jessie's thoughts are garish and hysterical -- with all the burning crosses, they look like a hybrid of "The Birth of a Nation" and Madonna's "Like a Prayer" video.

While it's one thing to apply a cartoony approach to the remaking of a spaghetti western -- which was, itself, both a satire and a homage -- it's quite another to use the same approach to deal with an issue as serious and inflammatory as racism toward blacks in the West. Because Van Peebles doesn't appear to have the chops to deal with this issue straight up, he jokes around with it, and in the process sabotages himself.

It's too bad the director didn't help himself by using some of the gifted black actors who've shown up so big in the last several years, or make better use of the great black actors from the past whose talents are squandered here, mostly in cameos. Instead he relies on big-name but unevenly accomplished amateurs like Tone Loc and Big Daddy Kane that he pulled in from the world of rap.

Sure, it's fun to watch Kane -- who's duded up as the gambler, Father Time, to look like a combination of Superfly and Maverick -- lower his eyes and purr, "Now, look here, paahdnah," but as the other gang members, Tone Loc and Charles Lane seem to think their characters walked straight off the set of "Amos & Andy." With his absurd mustache and villainous sideburns, costar Blair Underwood, as Jessie's sheriff friend, looks equally clumsy. Whatever they're doing, it feels wrong, both out of time and out of place.

Perhaps the promise Van Peebles showed in "New Jack City" was a fluke. There, at least, it looked as if he could direct. But this movie is so sloppy and slapped together that most of the action is incomprehensible, so poorly cut that the continuity is cluttered and garbled, and so noisy on its soundtrack that Michel Colombier's already forgettable score can barely be heard over the pawing and snorting of the horses.

As an actor, Van Peebles is easy on the eyes, but not especially exciting. He does look good in his hat, though, and he seems to know it, because he takes it off less than anyone since Dean Martin in "Some Came Running." Like Dino, he wears it even when he bathes. And why not? After all, he's the director.

"Posse" is rated R for nudity, language and violence.

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