The western is back, and here we find ourselves along the Transcontinental Railroad in Timothy Woodward, Jr’s The Outsider. The action comes from all fronts. First, there’s Jing Phang (Jon Foo), hoping to achieve the American Dream by working hard on the railroad with his pregnant wife, Li (Nelli Tsay). What could possibly go wrong?
Well, the local town folk don’t take too kindly to outsiders, especially ones who don’t look like them (I’m talking about Jing and Li). Troubles brewing for Jing when James (Kaiwi Lyman), son of the town’s Marshal, decides to make a public spectacle of Jing in the middle of town. James throws a gun on the ground and tells Jing to pick it up. Jing knows it’s a trap and refuses. Jing is summarily beaten and thrown in jail, and that night James kidnaps, rapes, and murders Jing’s wife, Li.
“Jing is summarily beaten and thrown in jail, and that night James kidnaps, rapes, and murders Jing’s wife, Li.”
As Jing uses his martial arts skills to escape his jail cell, this sets in motion a series of tragic events. Jing is thirsty for revenge, and his drink of choice is a dead James Walker. After killing a few local lackeys in a barfight, James’ father, Marshal Walker (Trace Adkins) must stop Jing from making good on his threat and protect his son. It is here that Jing becomes a minor character and the primary focus of the film switches to Marshal Walker and son as their story now dominates the rest of the film.
To find Jing, the Marshal hires an experienced tracker (a detective of the west, if you will) named Chris King (Sean Patrick Flanery). Chris locates his target, but Jing is able to get the upper hand and subdues Chris. Back in town, the Marshal needs some extra help protecting the town, and it comes in the form of Carlos (Danny Trejo). Will Jing find revenge? Will the tracker Chris escape? Can Marshal protect his son? Will James ever earn back his father’s respect for screwing up big time with the “Chinaman?”
Westerns play with a delicate balance between melodrama and action, all set in the lawless frontier of late 1800s America. Unfortunately for The Outsider, the balance leans too far toward melodrama. In other words, not enough action. Speaking of melodrama, the film opens just a little too heavy-handed, establishing Jing and Li as this loving, hopeful couple with lots of hugging and kissing. The rest of the drama is your standard western fare, including fridging the only female character in the film. James is the racist son of the Marshal, who enjoys humiliating Jing and takes his wife out of sadistic pleasure. Chris, the tracker, is the conflicted middle man, whose relationship with Jing becomes complicated. The most complex character is Marshal Walker, played beautifully by Trace Adkins. He is the lawman with something that resembles a moral center. He was once a harsh man, especially toward James, but found said “moral center” when his wife (James’ mother) passed away. He knows the crime his son committed against Jing and Li and protecting his son may be his downfall.
“The most exciting moment is in the bar when Jing takes down an entire gang of men by himself…unarmed…”
The action in The Outsider is fine, but there’s not enough for some desperately needed excitement. The most exciting moment is in the bar when Jing takes down an entire gang of men by himself…unarmed. What hurt this scene the most is the editing. Good fights, especially in martial arts, are best shot wide, and in a single shot…uninterrupted, so you see the full movement of Jing and his victim going down. For some reason, the action starts wide and cuts closer mid-swing (granted this is my personal opinion) and this disrupts the beauty of the action.
The Outsider puts a spin on the western drama but quickly falls back into the conventional tropes of the genre. It best to approach The Outsider knowing that its primary focus is on the story and not action. While the story does have a few good twists and turns, there’s nothing overly original about it. Points are scored by placing it in the Chinese worker camps along the railroads. Quite frankly, I’ve never seen a film…any film…set during this part of Chinese-American history and its about time.
The Outsider (2019) Directed by Timothy Woodward, Jr. Written by Sean Ryan. Starring Jon Foo, Trace Adkins, Sean Patrick Flanery, Danny Trejo, Kaiwi Lyman, Nelli Tsay.
5.5 out of 10 stars