Sunday, August 13, 2006


Sam and Steve go to the rodeo

By Edward Copeland
Few actors could express more with their eyes and their sheer physicality than Steve McQueen and Sam Peckinpah used that to great effect in Junior Bonner, his 1972 tale of family reunion and the rodeo in a small Arizona town. Admittedly, the movie is a lesser Peckinpah, but it does have much to offer in its simple tale of a man facing off with his nemesis, in this case a bull named Sunshine.

McQueen stars as the title character, a fading, down on his luck rodeo star who drives back into Prescott, Ariz., home of his estranged parents (Robert Preston, Ida Lupino) and his ambitious brother (Joe Don Baker).

The story is full of missed meetings and abandoned opportunities as Junior remains singularly focused on getting a second chance to beat Sunshine, owned by the rodeo's manager (Ben Johnson). Along the way, the spare tale gives Peckinpah the opportunity to brush on some of his favorite themes such as the passage of one way of life into another as the Western town sees modern times and the counterculture subtly approach the outskirts of their town, only this time the setting is the New West as opposed to the Old.

Peckinpah also employs some of the cinematic techniques he seemed to favor in this era, once again using panels and split screens in the opening credits, much as he did in The Ballad of Cable Hogue. The film also gives Peckinpah a chance to stage classic Western staples such as rodeo events and a barroom brawl that for some reason reminded me of the satirical sequence in Airplane!. The fight tears up the place, but there remains an element of ignorance to the chaos as Junior continues his dance with a woman he's had his eye on, players continue their card game and the band keeps playing.

What really makes Junior Bonner watchable are the performances. Preston is good as always as Ace Bonner, Junior's rascal of a dad who once was a rodeo star. In many ways, Preston's performance at times seem to channel his turns as Harold Hill in The Music Man, Toddy in Victor/Victoria and even Dr. Finegarten in S.O.B. Ida Lupino also gets a lot of nice moments as Junior's mom, exasperated by her estranged husband and her son as well. Baker also makes Junior's brother Curley a much more sympathetic character instead of going the easy route of villainy. Junior Bonner isn't in the top ranks of Peckinpah pictures, but it certainly does have its pluses.

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Nice write-up, Edward. I thought this movie was a nice gem - and McQueen's performance is typically awesome. I don't recall the movie resolving much of anything, but that more or less echoes the rambling nature of Junior.
And don't forget Ben Johnson -- he's great too. I was a wee bit dissapointed the first time I saw this one -- I thought that maybe Peckinpah aficionados (I'm one) had over sold it a bit. But now I think it's one of his best films -- it gets better with each viewing.
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