Eye For Film >> Movies >> The Outsider (2019) Film Review
Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode
In the late 1860s in North America, thousands of Chinese people who had relocated to the country to become gold and silver miners took up jobs as railroad workers, with more entering the country to join them. Although they frequently earned lower wages - something they couldn't do much about - they met with the usual resentment that faces workers who are visibly different. This bit of background is important to understanding the prejudices and systematic oppression at work in The Outsider; it's not explained in the film itself, which is curious, because a great deal else is over-explained and viewers can't always be counted on to know their history.
Given America's attitude to mixed-race relationships, many Chinese workers spent their lives alone. Jing Phang (Jon Foo, who will be familiar to some viewers from the Rush Hour TV series) is one of the lucky ones. He has a beautiful young wife (played by Nelli Tsay) with whom he is very much in love, and they're expecting a baby. It's a rare western, however, that tells of the adventures of a happy couple, so it's clear from the start that we're in dead-woman-drives-the-plot territory. When his wife's beauty catches the attention of a young white lawman (Kaiwi Lyman, who previously worked with director Timothy Woodward Jr on Hickok), trouble is quick to arrive and all the young worker can do is seek revenge.
Continued prejudice against ethnically Asian people in the US manifests in serious under-representation on the silver screen, especially in leading roles, so it's always good to see a film that's willing to do things differently. Of course, Foo is partly there for his martial arts skills but he gets surprisingly little opportunity to make use of them. Perhaps for budgetary reasons, Woodward gives us a single early scene that illustrates what he can do and then keeps a lot of the action offscreen, showing us the bodies afterwards. This may be an attempt to apply the old maxim that what is kept out of sight makes a bigger impression. It's an approach that's not altogether successful but it does give Foo room to do more as a dramatic actor, especially when Jing finds an ally amongst the men who are trying to track him down.
This is a film with a troubled production history. The iconic Paramount ranch, quite recognisable in some scenes, burned down during filming as wildfires raged through Malibu, forcing a last minute change of location. Woodward manages this fairly well with no awkward shifts onscreen; he's probably helped by the fact that much of the action is shot at night. Some scenes are very dark to the point where you will need a good quality, properly adjusted television to appreciate them fully if you're watching at home. Woodward uses quite tight framing for the genre, however, so watching on a small screen is less of an issue.
Foo makes a sympathetic lead (though he doesn't actually get much screen time) and Lyman is on good form as his antagonist. Country music star Trace Adkins plays the latter's marshal father and proves to be a competent actor, though he lacks the presence he has when on more familiar territory, and a more experienced actor might have made more of what is really the most interesting part in the film - the marshal being caught between his religious values and a promise he made to his dead wife that he would always take care of the lad. A brief scene in which the younger lawman visits a sex worker suggests that he represents an ongoing danger to women. Although we meet the female characters only briefly, Woodward's decision not to include any female nudity keeps the focus on their experiences as people rather than inviting viewers to relate to the lawman's desires.
The biggest problem with this film is its script. Not only does it rely heavily on cliché, it's heavily padded with a lot of repetition. It introduces too many characters (including Danny Trejo in a brief cameo as a mercenary) rather than properly developing the ones at the centre of the story. To get away with this takes rather more forceful acting than we are presented with. Woodward proved himself a competent director with his last project, The Final Wish, but struggles here because he just doesn't have the material he needs. The result is a film that tells its tale well enough, exploring a type of racism the genre rarely deals with, but it never quite takes off the way it should have done.Reviewed on: 09 Jun 2019