JUNIOR BONNER (1972)
By 1972, Sam Peckinpah was establishing a pattern of alternating between directing one film that catered to his trademark violent themes, and then one that was quieter and allowed him to express greater range It was a frustrating period as each slower more personal film failed, forcing him to return to the adult action arena each time. After the critical backlash surrounding the sexual brutality of STRAW DOGS, he made JUNIOR BONNER - as much a lower-gear contrast as the genial THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE was to the censor-baiting THE WILD BUNCH. However, whilst JUNIOR BONNER is a welcome chance to see more of what Peckinpah is about, it suffers from being altogether too nice and slow.
The story promises to be about a world that could have some excitement and even a little western glamour, being the tale of the title character (called J.R. by everyone) played by Steve McQueen, who’s trying to regain his prestige as an ex-champion rodeo rider. In the opening, we briefly see J.R. unsucessfully try to stay on a notoriously uppity horse called Sunshine for the necessary eight seconds. He shrugs off the loss philosophically but bribes the organiser to let him try the same horse again the next week. He plans to succeed next time.
J.R.is the son of another well-known rodeo man Ace Bonner (Robert Preston), one of those reckleSs schemers who always has a master plan that fails and takes his long-suffering family’s money with it. His latest pie-in-the-sky venture is to start again in Australia. His wife Elvira will have nothing to do with him because of his dead-beat ways. J.R’s ambitious real-estate whiz brother Curly (Joe Don Baker) bails out his father’s continuing debts by buying his land from him. J.R. resents this deal as Curly has profitted unfairly from his dad by buying the land at much less than the market rate. Curly defends himself by remarking that he was the only one who could clear his father’s slate. They fight, a familiar turbulence in their relationship.
J.R. is on his uppers and needs to do well at the rodeo. Finally, he teams up with his dad, and though they come a cropper in most of the events, it is a much-needed bonding exerecise for them and J.R. achieves his goal of staying on Sunshine for eight seconds. Unbeknownst to his dad, with his winning, he buys Ace a first class plane ticket to Australia…
JUNIOR BONNER is a gentle and light-hearted film, and whilst it has charm in the rueful resignation of McQueen, the always warm and grand, rich tones of Robert Preston, it takes a long time between the first and last rodeo sequences – and what happens between in its family drama is ponderous and fairly uninvolving. J.R. is mostly a passive observer, unable to take charge except when he lamps his brother at the family meal.
There is a hint of one of Peckinpah’s perennial concerns at times. As J.R. watches the bulldozers crush his daddy’s home, and endures Curly’s empire-building boasts, we feel that J.R. senses time is passing him by, that the pace of the world and modern commerce is leaving him behind. Also, it’s refershing to see that McQueen is pleasingly unconcerned about the image of being a macho hero in this role, but there simply isn’t the drive and energy to keep us involved. Even the second act saloon brawl seems oddly ambling and half-committed. The climactic rodeo scenes are a brief enlivener but it’s too late by then.
Fans of Peckinpah and McQueen may find this leisurely good’ ol-boy piece a cosy fireside chat but it didn’t set the box office aflame. Luckily, just around the corner the two Hollywood talents were about to re-team way more potently with THE GETAWAY…