In the beginning, The Old Way hews more toward the former. Directed by Brett Donowho from a script by Carl W. Lucas, The Old Way opens with a typical Western trope—a good old-fashioned hangin’. Things go sideways after an escape attempt, and the dusty street ends up littered with bodies, all at the hands of Colton Briggs (Cage), a hired gunslinger who leaves a young boy, now fatherless, behind at the scene to deal with the wreckage. Cut to 20 years later, and Briggs has hung up his guns for a much quieter life. He lives with his wife, Ruth (Kerry Knuppe), and daughter, Brooke (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) in a small country cabin and manages a humble store in town. Early scenes are set in sun-dappled fields with a soaring orchestral score playing overtop images of tall grass blowing in the wind, and fans of the genre should feel right at home. It doesn’t take long, however, before the tranquility is interrupted by a gang of outlaws, led by the wild-eyed James McCallister (Noah Le Gros), who shows up at the Briggs homestead looking to start some trouble. While Colton and Brooke are minding the store, the outlaws terrorize and eventually murder Ruth, awakening the killer inside Colton and sending both him and his daughter on a mission of revenge.
If all of this sounds like extremely standard stuff, that’s because it very much is. The Old Way borrows liberally from stalwarts of the genre like True Grit (either version) and Unforgiven, as Colton and Brooke team up to methodically track down and kill McCallister and his gang and just maybe learn a bit about each other along the way. And a short journey it is; at a brief 95 minutes, The Old Way moves you through the expected plot points in a hurry. The film’s only other notable characters are a group of U.S. Marshals, led by Justified‘s Nick Searcy, who are going after McCallister themselves and would prefer Briggs just stay out of the way. None of them register much as characters, though there is an amusing scene where they make themselves at home in Briggs’ cabin, helping themselves to the food in the house, after assuming the whole family had been killed.
Despite its overreliance on classic archetypes and tropes, The Old Way also finds itself getting fidgety inside a classical Western framework. The acting and dialogue are too modern, and there are times when the film seems like it’s pushing to include some non-traditional points of reference. Early on, the film intentionally builds up an aura around Briggs—one character warns that “you boys have woke up the devil”—that feels positively John Wick-ish, but the film stops short of porting over any of that series’ panache, and the action here, like everything else, is overly basic Instead, the film occasionally chooses to veer in a more serious direction in spots. There’s a bit early in the film, after his wife’s death, where Briggs points his pistol at his daughter while she’s sleeping, thinking he needs to choose between raising his daughter properly or violently taking her out of a world where he returns to the man he once was. The girl suddenly wakes up and blankly says, “Mama wouldn’t like you pointing a gun at me.” The scene comes across as so awkward — and is so flatly acted — that I thought for sure it would be revealed to be a short dream sequence. But it’s not, and it instead ends up serving as the first hint that both Briggs and his daughter likely deal with mental health struggles, if not outright psychopathic tendencies. Which could be interesting! But aside from one campfire conversation between Colton and Brooke later in the film (which is again a little tonally bizarre), The Old Way doesn’t bother to spend much time expanding upon that point, instead zipping along toward its shootout climax.
For any of this to work, the audience needs to become entirely invested in the inner turmoil of its lead characters. But, for long stretches, Cage plays Briggs as just kind of a grump, rather than a haunted man dealing with loss and his own personal demons. Armstrong, who starred in last year’s Firestarter remake, fares somewhat better considering her age, although she gets tripped up by a role that hinges on emotional beats that feel either inconsistent or unearned at a script level. Honestly, the movie’s most engaging performance might come from Clint Howard of all people, as he plays a cantankerous, older member of McCallister’s gang who gets no respect but rightfully fears Briggs. Howard is at least fun to watch, injecting a bit of life into each of his scenes.
Otherwise, there’s really nothing here that should interest anyone outside of Cage and Western completionists. The Old Way just feels too formulaic to leave any sort of impact. And though there are a few instances where it feints at pushing the boundaries of the genre, it ends up pulling back because its short runtime and limited scope just don’t allow for much exploration past whatever the actors are able to bring to the roles themselves (which, in this case, unfortunately, isn’t enough). Ultimately, we’ve seen this all done before and done better.
The Old Way is now playing in theaters now and will be available on digital and on-demand on January 13.