GANG OF ROSES (2003) – The annual Frontierado Holiday, coming August 2nd this year, is about the myth of the Old West, not the grinding reality. So is the movie Gang of Roses, which is why I cannot believe the merciless reviews this fun, harmless, escapist movie has gotten. I find it far better than the similar Bad Girls.
I eat, sleep and breathe Bad Movies, and this was a case where I settled in happily expecting to see an all-time disaster based on the reviews that Gang of Roses gets and its 2.3 rating at IMDb. Instead I saw a movie that I think deserves AT WORST a 5 or 6 rating. Maybe a 7 if you’re into Spaghetti Westerns.
Years ago I gave a glowing review to Posse (1993) starring Mario Van Peebles and, significantly Gang of Roses features a cameo by Van Peebles – dressed as Jesse Lee from Posse – giving an assist to the all-female title gang. He then says “Good luck, ladies” and rides off. (For obvious legal and financial reasons he’s listed in the credits simply as “Cameo” instead of Jesse Lee.)
I mention this because many Western fans told me they would have liked Posse if not for the underlying political message. Well, in Gang of Roses you get all the fun action of Posse with NO politics at all.
Let me give a quick synopsis, then take a look at the main characters, following which I will state my counter-arguments to the most frequent criticisms leveled at this female-led Western:
The gunslinging gang of the title is made up of four black women and one Asian woman. We’re told that after robbing a few dozen banks the gang split up and its members went their separate ways. When the sister of the Roses’ leader gets murdered during an outlaw gang’s crime spree that leader gets the band together again to seek vengeance and a hidden fortune in gold and jewels.
The main characters:
RACHEL – Monica Calhoun does a great job of portraying Rachel, the leader of the Gang of Roses. There’s nothing earth-shaking about the role, but it IS the most dramatically demanding, since Calhoun has to balance Rachel’s grief over her sister’s death and the way her desire for vengeance forces her to return to the violent lifestyle she thought she had left behind her.
In other words she’s a woman of color starring as an archetypal western action figure. In 2003. Here in 2019 critics would be demanding adoration for her over this fact but the 2003 production takes it in stride.
MARIA – LisaRaye McCoy plays Maria, who is equally skilled at card-playing, knife-hurling AND shooting. Her way of getting irresistibly drawn to gambling tables at the wrong time makes her roguish and lovably flawed.
She wears an all-white outfit in a sly nod to vintage Westerns in which the good guys wore white and the bad guys wore black. Obviously to a EuroWestern fan like me the white duds also put me in mind of the Holy Ghost gunslinger from the 70s. All she lacked was a dove on her shoulder.
ZANG LI – Marie Matiko stars in this role and performs well. In the years since our title gang disbanded Zang Li has been making a living as a Bounty Hunter. Unfortunately she isn’t given any kind of personality beyond that.
She has no Bounty Hunters on her OWN trail because flashbacks show us that the Gang of Roses members always wore masks during their heists.
KIM – Stacey Dash plays this character and shows she can do drama, but not as well as she does comedy, like in Clueless. She might have worked better as the lighter-hearted gambler/ gunslinger Maria instead of the hate-filled, killing-obsessed Kim.
Kim is introduced in a hanging scene which seems to be an homage to the origin flashback for Charles Bronson’s character Harmonica in Once Upon A Time In The West. But readjusted for a hanging instead of torture.
CHASTITY – Lil’ Kim is the weakest thespian link as the promiscuous Chastity, who sardonically notes the way she often winds up having to kill the many men she sleeps with.
Lil’ Kim DOES deserve the critical panning she gets for this film. Instead of reciting her lines she might as well be screaming “I’M THE BIG-NAME SINGER TRYING TO MAKE IT AS AN ACTOR, TOO” in all of her scenes. As written, her character has a very dramatic payoff but Lil’ Kim’s lack of skill dulls that payoff considerably.
The criticisms and my counterpoints:
“The movie’s not realistic at all.” – This is not a movie that’s trying to be the definitive portrait of the western experience for people of color. It’s a fun, escapist Western featuring highly stylized and over-the-top violence. But for a nice change of pace we get five women in the lead roles instead of squinty-eyed Clint Eastwoods and Charles Bronsons.
“The story’s not that original and is just about revenge and money.” – The story may not be original, but the fact that the five lead characters ARE ALL WOMEN OF COLOR OUT WEST, KICKING BUTTS AND BLOWING AWAY BAD GUYS IS ORIGINAL! People who praise the 1990s movie Bad Girls and diss Gang of Roses boggle the mind, especially since the supposedly “strong” women in Bad Girls get too much help from men.
Moreover, like in Spaghetti Westerns, the story in this movie is not what it’s all about. In flicks like this it’s all about style and how badass the main characters look slinging guns, drinking whiskey, smoking cigarettes and posturing in their western outfits. I will say again, recommend this film for ANY Spaghetti Western fans you know. I think THEY will appreciate the movie’s vibe.
“The women’s outfits don’t look like real old west garb.” – As opposed to what? Kevin Costner’s outfit in Silverado? You’ll be eliminating at least 98% of the Westerns ever filmed if you start going down the road of “authentic” apparel. I repeat, like in EuroWesterns Gang of Roses is about the visuals, not reproduction of the time period.
“Dialogue and humor are often anachronistic.” – Same for Posse, The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr and many, many more. If you can overlook those touches elsewhere, I certainly think a fun movie like this one deserves the same suspension of disbelief.
“The music is not accurate for the time period.” – Oh, and Bon Jovi’s Blaze of Glory and Billy Get Your Guns WAS accurate for the time period in Young Guns II? Or Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? Outside of parts of Ry Cooder’s score for The Long Riders you won’t find ANY Western that has music that would fit the 1800s setting.
“Right off the bat the movie gets basic facts wrong about Billy the Kid.” – Agreed. So do movies ABOUT Billy the Kid. Westerns have been getting the facts wrong about old west figures for as long as Westerns have been made. This is a fair point but again, you’d be wiping out most of the genre if factual references to western figures is your standard.
SPOILERS: A few of the Gang members don’t survive to find the buried treasure. Also, the significance of the Black Haired Woman is very sober-minded but the way it’s presented couldn’t help but remind me of a hilarious episode of James Garner’s Maverick series in the 1950s. (The one where the west is just crawling with people seeking revenge on the person who killed their brother … and in turn being sought by the brothers of people they’ve killed in their OWN revenge quest.)
FOR MY REVIEW OF YELLOWHAIR AND THE FORTRESS OF GOLD CLICK HERE
FOR REVIEWS OF SIMILAR MOVIES CLICK HERE
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