Rigid, Prolonged Dueling in 'Blunt Force Trauma' Misses Mark

Directed by: Ken Sanzel; Runtime: 97 minutes
Grade: D

It's hard to imagine a more literal take on the "modern-day western" than the premise behind Blunt Force Trauma: strap bulletproof vests onto the participants of wild-west-style pistol square-offs, shifting the proceedings from a duel to immediate death to something like the endurance of a boxing match. Those vests are about the only thing separating the straightforward idea from the framework of other run-of-the-mill competitive gunfight scenarios already out there in classic and modern westerns, featuring a pair of gunslingers who rise up the ranks to square off with the best of the best of an outlawed sport in South America. There's nothing wrong with the minimalism there so long as writer/director Ken Sanzel has a grip on it, somehow tapping into charismatic flourishes and schlocky thrills that show some degree of self-awareness. Despite amplified dialogue and a keen eye for gritty locations to frame the duels, Blunt Force Trauma ends up taking itself far too seriously as a drawn-out and somber backfire with little redemptive value.

People gather in grimy makeshift arenas across South America to participate in these duels, strapping on vests and having an intermediary check the bullets of their personal firearms (all pistols) before stepping into opposing circles across from another. After a heavy bolt slams, a beer can drops, or a blade stabs into the ground, the rivals fire upon one another until one of 'em exits the circle and/or falls down due to the impact -- essentially, gets knocked out -- for a predetermined amount of seconds, with the winner taking home the pot. It's a culture that John (Ryan Kwanten) sort of fell into, but now he's developed enough hunger and aptitude for it that he wants to square off with the mythical head honcho, to which he'll have to jump through some hoops along the circuit to make it happen. A formidable and attractive duelist, Colt (Freida Pinto), joins him on his quest, sporting her own agenda and devil-may-care attitude as they descend further into the dangerous underground culture.

During the initial duel that introduces the intense atmosphere and the roundabout rules, it looks as if director Sanzel might have the right idea with Blunt Force Trauma, where a group of bold, distinct personalities sporting deadly firearms reinvigorate the quick-draw bravura of the "Wild West". Gritty improvised locations reveal a bit of panache in the writer/director's artistic viewpoint, from the knockout zones created by yellow swaths of paint in the grooves of train stockyards to the subtle rays of light pooling in through wood slats of a barn's walls. Alas, these end up being the settings for exceedingly dull, protracted duels that oversell the tense seconds before the bullets start flying, falling back on a peculiar mix of trigger-happy suspense and competitive pummeling that struggles with making one value the skill involved with the "sport". The precision of the draws and the pain of the shielded bullet wounds come across as afterthoughts, emerging in importance only when the plot needs a boost.

Blunt Force Trauma needs a lot of shots to the arm to keep moseying along, too, mainly because there isn't much to the underlying plotting beyond John and Colt's mutual impetus through the underground circuit's ranks and their complicated chemistry on the road. Instead of digging deeper into their characters as an examination of who they really are and why they're involved with the profession, their conversations hinge on a brand of neo-noir flair and guarded existentialism that perpetually keeps one another -- and the audience -- at arm's length, revealing vague elements of their history in dry, detached ways. Ryan Kwanten's experience with westerns and oddball characters languishes inside John's conventional intensity and piercing gazes, while the beauty and mysteriousness of Freida Pinto's character struggles underneath an exterior that's too hardened to jibe with our hardened antihero. Their rapport ends up feeling stiff throughout, though Sanzel gives it a pass due to the volatile nature of their profession.

The journey in getting to the reigning bigwig champion, Zeddiger -- played with zen-like charisma by Mickey Rourke in what's essentially a cameo -- throws a handful of complications at John and Colt, none of which elevate the pulse or make Blunt Force Trauma any more gratifying in its action or thrills. Part of that stems from the predictable, steadfast trajectory being followed by the narrative, but it also has to do with some inane decisions made by a pair of gun-toting, cash-dealing outlaws who should know better than to draw attention to themselves, unnaturally interrupting the flow of the story with self-created problems whose outcomes make it obvious that they're only delaying the inevitable. Police pursuits, thievery attempts, even a training montage open up windows for some kind of brazen amusement, but writer-director Sanzel never breaks from the gloomy attitude to truly relish these meager bursts of bedlam. These are unhappy gunslingers blazing towards their goals with discontent, and Blunt Force Trauma suffers from the backfiring of that.

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