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‘Outlaw Posse’ Review: Mario Van Peebles’ Uneven but Diverting Mix of Blaxploitation and Spaghetti Western Tropes

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If Sergio Leone had ever signed on to make one of those ‘70s Blaxploitation oaters that once provided steady employment for Fred Williamson, it likely would have looked and sounded much like “Outlaw Posse,” a wildly uneven but cumulatively entertaining shoot-‘em-up that finds Mario Van Peebles doing triple duty as director, screenwriter and star. Quadruple duty, actually, if you count his credit as an executive producer.

“Outlaw Posse” has nothing to do with Van Peebles’ previous entry in this genre, 1993’s wild and woolly “Posse,” which suggests the multitasking filmmaker is tipping his Stetson to the multitude of ‘60s Spaghetti Westerns that, ahem, borrowed titles and eponymous characters from better known yet totally unrelated horse operas. (Think Django, Ringo, Sartana, etc.) But, then again, maybe not. Indeed, the film will probably be enjoyed most by folks not given to undue consideration of such trifling matters as lineage, logic and arrant anachronisms.

It’s 1908, and Chief (Van Peebles) is introduced as he is lying low “somewhere near Mexico” decades after stealing, then hiding, a shipment of Confederate gold near the end of the Civil War. The passage of time has done little to diminish the self-assurance of his strut or the speed of his gunslinging prowess, which he demonstrates while making quick work of racist bad guys who make the mistake of insulting him and a proud Native American in a seedy saloon. “I ain’t killed nobody in a month of Sundays,” Chief says, but it’s obvious he hasn’t forgotten how to make every bullet count.

This turns out to be merely a warm-up exercise for our hero, who figures it’s way past time for him to return to the mountains of Montana, where he hid the aforementioned gold in an underground mine. Along the way, Chief reconnects with his “posse,” a multicultural group of buddies that includes Carson (John Carroll Lynch), a conspicuously Caucasian former partner in crime; Spooky (DC Young Fly), a sassy cabaret performer who know just how far he can go while mocking white members of his audience; Southpaw (Jake Manley), an aptly nicknamed left-handed quick draw; and Queeny (Amber Reign Smith), an old flame whose aim is true when it comes to knife-throwing.   

Unfortunately, along with old friends, he also draws the attention of an old enemy: Angel (William Mapother), a sociopathic bandit leader who lost a hand during a previous encounter with Chief, leaving him with a brass substitute for his lost appendage and an unquenchable thirst for revenge. Angel schemes to track down his nemesis — and, of course, the hidden gold — by forcing Chief’s estranged adult son, Decker (Mandela Van Peebles, Mario’s real-life offspring), to infiltrate his dad’s merry band. And just to make sure Decker cooperates, Angel takes hostage Malindy (Madison Calley), the young man’s classically trained musician wife, who’s forced to serve as a personal violinist for the Beethoven-loving villain. (A nice touch: Angel also employs his very own biographer to ride along with his gang and glorify his exploits. Trouble is, the pen isn’t mightier than the sword, or the six-gun.)

Outlaw Posse proceeds at something a bit slower than a full gallop, and incorporates more subplots than it can adequately do justice. But it never feels dull, thanks in large measure to the game performances of well-cast supporting players in an ensemble that also includes Edward James Olmos as a crochety general store owner; Cedric the Entertainer as mayor of Lil’ Heaven, a commune-like barter town that welcomes all ethnicities; and, especially, Whoopi Goldberg as the Stagecoach Mary (a.k.a. Mary Fields), a real-life Wild West icon who provides transportation and conversation with equal measures of sagacious sass.

It helps a lot that the impressively choreographed shootouts and other action sequences are suitably rousing, and that both Mario and Mandela Van Peebles appear persuasively dangerous even while cracking wise. By the way: The 1993 “Posse” co-starred Melvin Van Peebles, Mario’s filmmaker father and director of the 1971 seminal blaxploitation classic “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.” (“Outlaw Posse” is dedicated to his memory.) Melvin gave Mario a small role in that film — and now Mario has continued the family tradition by casting Mandela in this one. And the beat goes on.

As is often the case in revisionist Westerns, there are a few too many scenes here that smack of self-conscious social consciousness, and strive to lend the material a weightiness that it doesn’t fully earn. On the other hand, it shouldn’t be surprising that Van Peebles is so intent on acknowledging the similarities of the injustices endured by ex-slaves, Native Americans and other exploited groups. After all, this is the same man who bookended his 1993 “Posse” with an elderly Woody Strode sarcastically noting that claiming Columbus discovered America and colonizers seized control of land is like saying he discovered your car in your driveway and drove off.