On paper, Joe Kidd looks incredibly promising: it's directed by John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape), it's written by the great Elmore Leonard (not based on one of his stories, mind you, but actually written by him), it stars Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven) and Robert Duvall (The Godfather) and it features a terrific Lalo Schifrin score. Given all of the talent involved, it's hard not to feel a little disappointed by the end result: an engaging but muddled western that suffers from confusing characterization and some poor storytelling choices.
Who is Joe Kidd? He's... well, he's Clint Eastwood, more or less. But what kind of man is he? I couldn't tell you. When the film opens, he's facing prison time for hunting on Indian land. Then there's a scrap with a Mexican revolutionary named Luis Chama (the decidedly non-Mexican John Saxon, Black Christmas), who raids Kidd's ranch and assaults one of his employees. Kidd seeks revenge, so he teams up with wealthy land baron Frank Harlan (Robert Duvall), who has formed a posse to capture Chama.
Frank is a fairly nasty guy, and after a while Kidd decides that Frank is a little too violent for his taste (this is after Kidd has aided in a few cold-blooded murders, but live and learn, I guess). So, he ends up in a strange sort of neutral position, casually undercutting the efforts of both Chama's revolution and Frank's killing spree. It's more than a little difficult to tell where Kidd's allegiances lie at any moment in time, and the ambiguity is frustrating rather than intriguing.
The movie's politics are even messier. Chama is clearly modeled on iconic revolutionaries like Pancho Villa and Che Guevera, but Leonard's screenplay seems to suggest that those guys would have had more success if they had turned themselves into the authorities and made their case through proper legal channels. Sure, because a well-stated argument is usually all it takes to inspire lasting change. It's one thing for Joe to promote such an idea, but Chama buys it without much argument. Well, I'm glad that worked out smoothly.
Despite these issues, Joe Kidd certainly has its pleasures. There are plenty of fun “Eastwood being Eastwood” moments, in which the actor uses his sly grin and steely squint to good effect. I particularly dig the scene in which Eastwood knocks a bandit unconscious by lazily swinging a flower pot above his head. The actor's relaxed confidence goes a surprisingly long way towards covering the inconsistencies of his character, as Eastwood always seems to know what he's doing. I also greatly enjoyed Robert Duvall's turn as the film's leathery villain – Duvall hasn't played a lot of bad guys, but it's fun to see that sly twinkle applied to a fairly nasty character.
Sturges has certainly delivered a good-looking movie, with plenty of memorable desert vistas and Leone-inspired visual riffs (including a knowing close-up of Eastwood's eyes during the film's climax). The handful of action sequences are staged with clarity, and the tuneful Schifrin score (influenced by Morricone, but still very much its own thing) adds brisk energy to the proceedings. It's easy to watch, but never congeals into a satisfying whole: each individual scene makes sense on its own terms, but when you put them all together you realize that you're missing a few puzzle pieces.
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 88 minutes
Release Year: 1972