Friday, June 23, 2017

Junior Bonner

I have never been to a rodeo and have no strong inclination to go to one. Maybe if some friends invite me along, I'd consider it, but I'm not going out of my way for one. If you enjoy rodeos, that's cool, but just remember my preference as you read this review.

From director Sam Peckinpah, Junior Bonner (1972) tells the story of Junior "JR" Bonner (Steve McQueen), a once great rodeo rider whose best days are behind him. The next stop on tour brings him to his hometown of Prescott, Arizona. There, his brother Curly (Joe Don Baker) is selling the family property to develop a trailer park, and his parents Ace (Robert Preston) and Elvira (Ida Lupino) are estranged. Ace has plans to head to Australia for his latest crazy scheme.

This is another strange one for Peckinpah. While the cowboy imagery and the celebration of Junior's rugged individualism in the face of encroaching modern capitalism feel par the course, no one dies horribly, and the characters even enjoy some happiness in the face of their uncertain futures. It's odd, but the best words I can think of to describe the film are charming and easygoing.

The plot is rather perfunctory. There are no unexpected twists or turns, and no surprise revelations are offered that reshape everything you thought you knew about the characters. They are who they say they are: for all their faults, honest, upfront folks. Even Curly, who might have been more of a villain in another movie, is less of a greedy sellout and more someone who sees where things are headed and wants to position his family so they are financially secure, including JR and Ace, the wild and irresponsible ones of the family.

The rodeo elements are fairly minimal, at least in terms of actual screen time (not surprising considering the goal is to ride a bull for eight seconds, and even with Peckinpah employing his trademark slow motion, these sequences pass quickly). Much more time is devoted to the family dynamics and interaction with the others in town, including the owner of the mean bull JR wants to beat (Ben Johnson), a fellow bull rider (Bill McKinney), and a girl who catches JR's eye (Barbara Leigh).

Performances are mostly good. It's a little hard to buy McQueen as a broken-down has-been, but the relationship between Preston and Lupino is moving. The film also has some laughs, like when Ace drunkenly rides a horse through the town parade like a madman and JR manages to both instigate and avoid a bar brawl.

I can't quite get behind Junior Bonner. It's straightforward to the point of simple, the narrative doesn't so much unfold as it proceeds from vignette to vignette, and by the end, not much has really changed from the beginning. Maybe that's the point, and if you want a nicer, sweeter Peckinpah picture, this is one to check out.

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