"Gritty" used to mean something about injecting adult themes and moral grey areas into otherwise sanitized or even kiddified material, like superhero stories. Lately it seems to have gone the other way, not rendering genre stories suitable for young children, but stripping them of all nuance and indulging a puerile sensibility while assuring the viewer that this makes them more "grown-up".
Traded is exactly this sort of thing, billing itself as a "gritty" period western. The days are long gone when studios cranked out cheap oaters as fast as audiences could gobble them up; the "spaghetti" era already added plenty of B-movie grit, and even Rango -- a western explicitly aimed at children -- manages to offer some pretty deep insight into the human condition.
Not so much the case with Traded, which is less a western than a western inflection on the same kind of direct-to-video action flick as the six others that director Timothy Woodward Jr. has slapped together since the beginning of 2015. I'm certainly not trying to write off all DTV action here, and there's probably something to be said for racking up experience with quantity work, but looking at the movie at hand it's clear that the quality hasn't gotten here yet.
The "grit" in question is the supposedly realistic account of how awfully women could be treated in the Old West. An opening narration tells us that twenty years after the Civil War, slavery had been "replaced" on the frontier by traffic in women for the purpose of forced prostitution. And yeah, I'm sure that there was all manner of physical, emotional, and sexual violence that made it pretty awful to be a woman in that time and place, and it's for the best that we acknowledge the truth of those conditions honestly.
At the same time, though, the camera always seems to leer at their abuse, taking a perverse satisfaction in it. There's a distinct sense that the lesson of this historical misogyny is meant to be that women today don't appreciate how good they have it, comparatively. The constant suggestion seems to be that they should be grateful for men like Clay (Michael Paré) who carved out a space where they can feel safe. Right from the start, when his daughter Lily (Brittany Elizabeth Williams) wants to go to a dance, he asks, "if I don't protect my daughter's virtue, who will?" I don't know, Clay; maybe she will?
But there I go, assuming that women are capable of policing their own bodies rather than outsourcing the job to one protector-man or another. How is a young woman entrusting her "purity" to her father until he passes that role on to a man he approves as her husband any less trafficking than the chattel slavery of the frontier cathouse?
Although of course in this story father does know best. When Lily sneaks off to Wichita to apply as a Harvey Girl -- which probably itself sounds less reputable to most of the movie's likely audience than it actually was -- her kidnap is inevitable. It's up to Clay to track her down and return her home intact, in as many senses of the word as possible. Along the way he'll hand out a series of righteous smackdowns to the likes of Trace Adkins and Tom Sizemore, and earn the grudging respect of a barman (Kris Kristofferson) who drawls homespun clichés like that old chestnut about the wolves of love and hate.
The plot, courtesy of writer Mark Esslinger, is a threadbare excuse to get Clay from one brawl to the next. The dialogue generally consists of punches, interrupted by demands to tell him the whereabouts of his daughter, followed by more punches until he learns the next man who took her and where. Rinse; repeat. There's also a bit in there about Clay's own possibly-shady past, but it comes from nowhere and serves little purpose to either the storyline or his own character development.
But if you're interested in a movie like Traded, it's not for the scintillating repartee or the nuanced examination of character, it's for the fist- and gun-fights, which it certainly delivers in quantity if not quality.
Rating: 1 out of 5