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A week with Junior Bonner, a rodeo pro on the wrong side of 40, broke, bruised, and headed into Prescott, his home town, for the annual 4th of July Frontier Days. His dad, Ace, is a dissolute dreamer fixed on finding gold in Australia; his mom is resigned to Ace's roving; his brother Curly is tearing up the countryside to make a million in real estate. Junior just wants to stay on a bucking Brahma for eight seconds, hang out with Ace, find a way to spend time with a beautiful woman whose eyes catch his, and earn enough to get to next week's rodeo. As the old West and its code give way to progress, Junior is lonesome, laconic, and on the road - just where he wants to be. Written by
The true individual will carve out a niche for himself in life, and gravitate toward those endeavors or communities most conducive to maintaining that autonomy which is to that person, all important. For some, it can be a life's work, the occupation of seeking out and accepting whatever challenge will take them down their own road. And who could better personify such a man than Steve McQueen, who plays the title role in `Junior Bonner,' director Sam Peckinpah's character study of a man so determined to live life on his own terms that the only challenge that means anything to him is the one he makes with himself. When Junior says, `Rodeo time, I gotta get it on down the road,' it's his way of saying, `Life awaits.' His life; and he's working it in such a way that whenever he gets to the end, he's going to be able to look back and say unequivocally, `I did it my way.' That's the challenge. That's Junior Bonner.
He's been a rodeo cowboy most of his life; a former champion-- like his dad, Ace Bonner (Robert Preston)-- he's worn out and weary, but not down. The glory days may be behind him, but that's not what it was ever all about anyway, at least not for Junior. And who he is and what he's all about becomes perfectly clear when the circuit takes him back home to Prescott, Arizona, for a Fourth of July show. When he hits town, Junior approaches Buck Roan, the man who owns the rodeo stock and will be overseeing the draw for the bull ride; Junior wants to ride Sunshine, the meanest, toughest bull in the bunch, and he's willing to pay for the privilege-- he'll pay to ride the very bull that most cowboys would pay to stay off of. But the way Junior puts it, `There's one of him, and one of me. I need it--'
In the meantime, Junior reconnects with his family: Ace, who is still looking for that gold ring, living on the memories of his forty plus years riding the rodeo, and dreaming of a new start in Australia; Elvira (Ida Lupino), his mom, who has long suffered Ace's fantasies; and his brother, Curley (Joe Don Baker), a successful entrepreneur who wants Junior to hang up the rodeo and come to work for him selling mobile homes-- which he has to know is never going to happen. The difference between Curley and Junior, in fact, is summed up when Curley says to him, `I'm working on my first million, you're still working on eight seconds...'
Stylistically rendered, Peckinpah's film is affecting, and at times almost disarmingly sincere. Junior's relationship with Ace, for example, is so subtly underscored with honesty that it rings true-to-life and gives a perspective to both characters that is contextually invaluable. The way Peckinpah presents it is definitive, as is the way in which Junior relates to Elvira, Curley, and even the rodeo itself. It's Peckinpah's way of examining the individualist, beginning with the outstanding screenplay by Jeb Rosebrook, then by setting a perfect pace and utilizing some imaginative split-screen photography and slow motion shots to great effect. And, as with all of Peckinpah's films, there's a sense of violence-- understated here, less pronounced than that of say, `The Wild Bunch'-- but present, nevertheless; you can feel it, lying just beneath the surface of all that's happening, but definitely there. You can see it in the confrontation between the cowboys and the bulls they ride; in the way Junior lives his life, that constant challenge of man against beast or against nature; or in the bulldozers razing an old ranch house, grinding down the old and weak in favor of the new and the strong. It's pure Peckinpah, and it's brilliant filmmaking.
Tough, adamant, iconoclastic; Steve McQueen was the perfect choice for the role of Junior. One of the most underrated actors ever, he has a daunting magnetism and a commanding screen presence that allows him to dominate any scene if he so chooses, and he doesn't have to be the guy doing the talking to do it. Consider his scenes with Preston; Ace may have the lines, but your attention is drawn to and focused on Junior. And everything McQueen does tells you something about who Junior is, from the way he walks-- has he spent a lifetime astride broncos and bulls? You bet-- to the way his hat sits on his head. It's the kind of natural and detailed performance that sets McQueen apart, and looking back on this character, and on his whole body of work, you can say without hesitation that he did it his way. This is one gifted, singular actor who never gives less than 110%. And there will never be another like him.
Preston, too, is memorable as Ace, a man who, if not larger than life himself, has dreams that are. You can tell Junior is cut from the same cloth, though Ace still thinks there's going to be gold for the taking around the next bend, if only he can get there. Junior, though, has been there and knows there's nothing around that bend but the next rodeo-- which for him is enough. The biggest difference between them is the fact that Ace still seems to have the need to prove himself to the world, while Junior has nothing to prove to anyone but himself. There's something of `The Music Man's' Prof. Harold Hill in Ace, but overall Ace is unique, and Preston plays him to perfection.
An absorbing drama that captures a sense of time and place that no longer seems to exist, `Junior Bonner' is a glimpse at a dying breed, the individual who takes life head-on without trying to put a spin or a `politically correct' perspective on it. Like Junior said, `There's one of him, and one of me.' And that about sums it up. It's the magic of the movies. 10/10.
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