Directors Duane Graves and Justin Meeks, who brought us the horrendous “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”-wannabe, “Butcher Boys,” throw their hats into paying homage to the western genre with their latest, “Kill or Be Killed,” which hits DVD shelves on March 1. But in trying to be a throwback to the genre that introduced us to talent such as Sergio Leone and John Ford, the duo also try to throw some horror elements into the mix – like how the surprisingly good “Bone Tomahawk” did just last year. The problem is that barely any moment of “Kill or Be Killed” works.
Originally known as “Red on Yella, Kill a Fella,” which sounds so much more unique, “Kill or Be Killed” comes across as generic as the film’s title. And yet there are some moments in which, artistically speaking, the film looks quite good. One shootout scene, in particular, has a great-looking moment in which a character is shot in the foot and the blood splatters upward along the door behind which he is standing. It’s a moment that is certainly reminiscent of the Leone films, or even other tributes done by directors such as Quentin Tarantino.
It’s the autumn of 1900. Claude “Sweet Tooth” Barbee (Meeks) and his gang of outlaws are traveling across the country to find some cash, after their initial robbery was botched during the getaway. But while this ruthless bunch travels from town to town and leave their mark, they have one problem. Not only is the law out looking for them; there is also another form of evil hunting them down and could be more powerful than they ever expected.
While “Kill or Be Killed” may have some things going for it, a lot of it does not work in its favor – namely the putrid script and bombastic score that sounds like it’s been lifted from other, better westerns. Actually, a lot of the film feels less like an original tribute and more like a collection of scenes from previous films reshot and redone with Meeks and Graves at the helm and the actors they have in front of the camera. It doesn’t feel like it’s its own vision of the genre.
The characters are meant to be ruthless and unlikable, sure, but a lot of them are also so one-dimensional and so bland that it’s difficult to find any reason to care about what they do. One constantly recites Bible verses, while another has a “Looney Toons”-style laugh that is painful to hear. The actors do what they can, but a lot of the performances feel extremely over the top and cartoonish.
The ending of “Kill or Be Killed” is something that is difficult to explain, because one moment happens that should have ended it all, and then the film continues and ends on a completely different note; one in which it is literally impossible to take place, given what happens prior to that moment.
Meeks and Graves have their hearts in the right place, but they couldn’t really come to a decision on how to make “Kill or Be Killed” a proper western tribute and a horror film at the same time. The horror elements of the film feel out of place, and the western elements feel rehashed rather than original. It just makes one want to revisit “Django Unchained” to see how a western tribute is properly done.