Comparing Good for Nothing to the 1960s Italian Westerns of Sergio Leone isn’t really fair, but that’s precisely the feel writer-director Mike Wallis is going for in his debut. This sort of stylistic exercise requires an abundance of wit, ingenuity, and verve. Instead, Wallis displays a deadly combination of tastelessness and lethargy, and his film serves as an uncommonly painful reminder of why there are so few good Spaghetti Westerns outside of Leone’s.
How’s this for a meet-cute: a nameless outlaw (Cohen Holloway) shoots up a saloon and kidnaps a young Englishwoman (Inge Rademeyer) on her way to her uncle’s ranch, but when he tries to rape her, he can’t get it up. With an inept posse in not-so-hot pursuit, the impotent fugitive goes in search of a cure so he can violate his beautiful hostage properly. Along the way, these two engage in some standard culture-clash farce and, yes, develop feelings for each other, à la Swept Away, minus the shrillness and pretensions to meaning.
Good for Nothing could use some pretensions. The unlikely premise might have worked had it had something real to say about violence, sexuality, or civilization versus savagery, or, failing that, an ounce of energy or charm. Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name is a sadistic, mercenary bastard, but he’s fun to watch because he’s so charismatic, and his rare acts of kindness resonate. Holloway’s antihero (billed as The Man) is just a lout. Worse still, the film is weirdly solemn and enervated despite its potential for outrageousness. For such a self-conscious enterprise, it leans heavily on familiar patterns without bothering to comment on them.
True to his sources, Wallis attempts a laconic style, stripping down the dialogue and letting the images do the talking, and while he gets a few picturesque shots, there aren’t nearly enough. Hell, Leone’s films consisted entirely of picturesque shots — not just of landscapes, but also of interesting faces, of which Wallis has a short supply. He can’t even stage action, except for intentionally pathetic gunfight in a stream. And while the great Spaghetti Westerns are hypnotically slow, using camera placement, editing, and music to create atmosphere and tension, Good for Nothing just drags, its dilatory pace padding the running time of an extremely slight story.
Leading lady Rademeyer co-produced the film with Wallis, and they’ve designed it as a showcase for her, shooting her dark-eyed, strong-jawed face in loving closeup and costuming her in a corset and petticoats for most of the movie. But Good for Nothing is a curious film for a starlet to pin her hopes on. With its queasy juxtaposition of rape, romance, and silliness, it doesn’t resemble Leone so much as 1971’s Hannie Caulder, a stilted American attempt to mimic the style of the Italian Westerns, which likewise served as a strange vehicle for Raquel Welch. At least that movie was filled with great character actors.
Good for Nothing was made in New Zealand, and I assumed until the Indian medicine man showed up that it also took place there, which demonstrates the vagueness of its Old West setting and the inadequacy of the cast’s American accents. Setting the film Down Under might’ve given it some novelty value, but wouldn’t have compensated for its fatal lack of either style or substance.