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“DEAD MAN’S HANDS” | MOVIE REVIEW

Delilah Andre, Izzy Batinkoff and Randall Batinkoff
Directed by Brian Skiba

Oh, to live in a time when there was almost always a Western playing at the local cinema. While the once respected genre has been almost completely put out to pasture, we are graced by the occasional treat of a new “oater”. Brian Skiba’s “Dead Man’s Hand” is the latest.

While filmmakers such as Kevin Costner and Walter Hill can still get their Western excursions in cinemas, 99% of today’s westerns are made on low budgets and head straight to On-Demand and streaming services.

Most of these films suffer greatly from their lack of proper funding and fail to find an authenticity. For a good deal of its running time, “Dead Man’s Hand” is afflicted by the curse of its small budget.

Corin Nemec and director Skiba adapted the Graphic Novel by Kevin and Matthew Minor, a tale of retribution and bloody revenge in the Old West.

Reno (a completely miscast Jack Kilmer) is a deadly gunslinger. The issue with Kilmer’s performance is how his acting style and very presence doesn’t fit in the dusty and violent world of the 1800s. The scenes where Kilmer stands with two guns blazing are simply laughable.

The same goes for Camille Collard’s embarrassingly bad performance as Reno’s pregnant wife Vegas. Both Kilmer and Collard fail to adjust their “modern ways” to the time the film is set. Both actors speak too quickly and in too modern a diction, enunciating as if they were two California teens on Spring Break.

Reno and Vegas are crossing the post-Civil War country on their way to opening a saloon and settling in to family life when their stagecoach is held up by bandits. Reno kills the leader. Once they stop at the next town, we find that our “hero” killed the brother of one Colonel Bishop (the always welcome presence of Stephen Dorff, an actor who gets better as he gets older).

Bishop and his men have taken over the town, running it with intimidation and fear. When Marshall McCutchen (an excellent Cole Hauser) comes to serve a murder warrant on Bishop, the lawman is met with guns and threats. After Reno is maimed by Bishop, he is healed through Native American mysticism by two Apaches, Mahto (the great Mo Brings Plenty) and Chato (Cody Jones).

With the players set, the revenge tale plays out in gun blasts and surprising loyalties.

What works in Skiba’s film are the scenes between Cole Hauser and Stephen Dorff. The two actors have decades of experience, and both have a natural grit. Their characters wear the hard lives they live like a second skin and the performances of these two pros give legitimacy and weight to the film.

What doesn’t work is everything else. Vincent Albo’s Art Direction is as bland as they come, failing to take advantage of the New Mexico landscapes. Alicia Rae’s sets are too clean. The small western town looks brand new, with every building adorned with a fresh coat of paint.

The score is one of the picture’s biggest demerits, failing on astronomical levels. Actor Stephen Dorff composed the music. Filled with insipid (and out of place) Rock/Country-tinged songs, the score weights the film down with an unshakable artificiality.

The opening titles announce this to be a “A Brian Skiba Flick”. Using the term “flick” sets the mood for an old fashioned “B” movie shoot-‘em-up. Unfortunately, director Skiba is hampered by the one-two punch of a lack of skill and funds.

The filmmaker fails to sell his Western on every level. Skiba never finds the right tone. At times he goes for seriousness, other times he tries action, occasionally he shoots for emotion and pathos. Skiba wants escapism and heavy drama in equal measure, but nothing works, as the director seems to be throwing out anything he can in the hope that something will hit.

The side story of a slave (Vincent E. McDaniel) who wants to free himself from his master (Costas Mandylor) is a failed attempt at social commentary, while the final act of mystic revenge plays so cartoonish that it has to be seen to be believed.

As for the low budget, a better filmmaker knows how to work around that type of financial obstacle. With Skiba’s lack of vision, the whole picture has the look of a bunch of kids play-acting in their back yards.

It is a shame that “Dead Man’s Hand” doesn’t work. Modern cinema needs more good Westerns while Dorff and Hauser prove their mettle in the genre.

Sadly, their solid work drowns in a tsunami of pedestrian filmmaking.