Ned Kelly (2004)

"Weak"

Ned Kelly (2004) Review


Sometimes all you want is a good Western, and when you see something like Ned Kelly, which starts off as predictable but enjoyable nonsense, go so thoroughly off the rails, you have to wonder: Is it still even possible to make a good outlaw-on-the-run film anymore?

The historical Ned Kelly is like the Jesse James of Australia, mixed with a little John Dillinger, Robin Hood, and (if this movie has anything to say about it) Jesus Christ. Gregor Jordan's film (made previously in 1970 with Mick Jagger in the lead) starts off north of Melbourne, circa 1871, with the hardscrabble Irish Kelly family. The man of the house after his father died years before, Ned (Heath Ledger) gets sent to jail after a cop unjustly accuses him of stealing a horse and provokes him into a fight. Freed after three years, Ned tries to go the straight and narrow, doing day labor and even bare-knuckle boxing for money. But wouldn't you know it: The bloody coppers have it in for poor Neddy.

One night, when Ned's off seducing the wife (Naomi Watts, Ledger's real-life on-again, off-again girlfriend) of a wealthy landowner he's working for, a policeman comes by the Kelly household, looking for a date with Ned's sister, whom he's been harassing down at the pub. After the Kelly boys rough him up, the cop claims Ned shot him, at which point the whole constabulary comes and arrests the mother. Now, don't they know you can't throw a good Irish boy's ma behind bars? As the screenplay actually has Ned say, "I won't take this injustice!" Ned and a couple of his buddies, including Joe Byrne (Orlando Bloom, the only actor who seems to be enjoying himself here), head out to the bush, only to get chased by the coppers and before you know it, there's been a wee shootout and three of the cops end up dead. Soon, Ned's got himself an outlaw gang that's robbing banks, burning mortgages, and giving money to the poor. They've also got a small army on their trail, led by Geoffrey Rush, who seems to be reprising his Inspector Javert from Les Miserables.

Now, those deaths weren't Ned's fault, but then, nothing in this film is. From the first supposed horse theft (Ned just found the horse), to the first fight with a cop (he started it!) to the strange police vendetta against Ned (they started it!), it's as though the entire Australian law enforcement establishment woke up each and every morning with a single thought in their heads: Get Ned Kelly. John McDonagh's script of Robert Drewe's novel Our Sunshine makes an attempt to draw a parallel between Ned's problems and the general oppression of poor Irish. That's all well and good, but when it asks the viewer to believe a series of such ludicrous developments - which leave out unpleasant facts, like the real Ned Kelly being in and out of jail on assault and theft charges since he was 14 - it's hard to build up much sympathy.

None of this means that Ned Kelly still couldn't have been salvaged. The story is boilerplate but rousing, and it's a handsome enough production, with cinematographer Oliver Stapleton painting lyrical scenes of the raw Australian countryside and its wildlife. But director Jordan (Buffalo Soldiers) doesn't seem to have a fundamental grasp of the mechanics of the Western. Once the chase is on, the film somehow slows down, and its off-putting rhythms make the grating dialogue all the more exasperating.

With Rush, Watts, and Ledger, this is sort of an Aussie all-star production, which makes it all the stranger something better couldn't have been dredged up. One wonders what Peter Weir and Russell Crowe could have done with the same material. Or Paul Hogan, for that matter.

Ned heads out.



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