There are no decently-sized Hollywood productions that go without incident, but the troubles faced by “Jane Got A Gun” are worthy of their own movie. Without falling too deep into the morass of problems that should have derailed it altogether; just days before the shoot was to begin it lost director Lynne Ramsay who simply walked away. Michael Fassbender, then set for the male lead, had vanished not long before that. Then came a litany of casting hires/departures (Bradley Cooper, Jude Law, Jake Gyllenhaal), along with key elements of the crew who didn’t want to be part of what was looking like an epic disaster. And really that is just the tip of the iceberg. So that the film even got made and is reasonably competent should be seen as a victory in itself.
Around from the very beginning was producer and star Natalie Portman, whose faith in the material is probably the sole reason for its completion. Gavin O’Connor (“Warrior”) came aboard to fill Ramsay’s shoes, and while he does an efficient if workmanlike job, he’s hamstrung by a cobbled-together screenplay that can’t settle on a consistent tone. Portman plays the titular Jane Hammond, a proud, independent woman living in post-Civil War New Mexico. Moments into the film, her outlaw husband Bill “Ham” Hammond (Noah Emmerich) arrives riddled with bullets, shot up by John Bishop (Ewan McGregor) and the Bishop Gang. With the threat that the Bishops will return to finish the job, Jane, not one used to asking anyone for help, turns to the one person who might. That man turns out to be Dan Frost (co-writer Joel Edgerton), a hot-shot gunslinger and Jane’s former flame. But he’s still pissed over the way things shook out between them, and he’s just as likely to shoot her as defend her husband, who he has no reason to like.
Of course he eventually agrees to help, but that means little when there is so much emotional baggage between the two of them. Through an abundance of flashbacks we slowly begin to learn of their tortured past and the many injustices done to Jane over the years, adding a little frontier grit to a story that sorely needs it. The problem is that the screenplay, credited to three different writers, seems torn whether it’s a romantic tale of disparate lovers in the Old West, or a violent barnburner in the fashion of “Unforgiven”.
Fortunately, the siege-like closing act, in which the Bishop Boys shower the screen with deadly buckshot, is closer to the tense thriller this story always demanded. In the midst of the final shootout, all of the pain and resentment faced by Jane and Dan comes crashing to a head, depicted with intensity and honesty by Portman and Edgerton. While they don’t share much romantic chemistry, as a gunfighting duo they make an incendiary pair.
The Western has experienced a renaissance of late, and while “Jane Got A Gun” isn’t a classic by any means, it’s a respectable entry in the genre. Few would have predicted that to be the case.
“Jane Got A Gun” is available right now on DVD and Blu-Ray.