San Diego Film Festival presents ‘Western Religion’: Your soul is at stake

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Reviewed by Alicia Glass

Studio: 3rd Partner Productions

Director: James O’Brien

Review Rating: 7 out of 10

In 1879, gunfighters, cardsharps and all manner of mysterious men (and women) come together in the newly formed mining town of Religion, Arizona, for a legendary poker tournament.

So the town entrepreneur Harvard Gold (James Anthony Cotton) wants to put his newfangled mining town of Religion on the map, and he figures the best way to do that is to hold a “first annual” poker game and offer up this ridiculously ornate golden cross as the prize. The game will be held at the Last Chance Saloon, no that doesn’t ring ominous at all, owned by Southern Bill (Peter Sherayko), and covered by the New York Times reporter Edward James (Tony Herbert). A whole host of odd characters with flashes of their backgrounds are offered up for our enjoyment too – Saint John (Gary Douglas Kohn), former gun-toting outlaw turned itinerant preacher; growling gunslinger Anton Stice (Claude Duhamel) who likes killin’ a little too much; wanted bank robber Chinaman Dan (Peter Shinkoda); flippant dandy yet unexpectedly charming Salt Peter (Louie Sabatassao); the spiritual but young half Injun Waylin Smith (Miles Szanto) and his Apache guide (Sam Bearpaw); flamboyant magician Raven McCabe (William Moore) and carpenter Bobby Shea (Sean Joyce). Even the Madam of the house, Bootstrap Bess (Holiday Hadley), wants in on the golden cross prize, and is willing to do all sorts of skullduggery to get it!

The movie did remind me of some of the more ridiculous aspects of films like Maverick and The Quick and the Dead, but overall it is a grand fun time. Every good western should have at least one femme fatale, and while Bootstrap Bess might be a bit of a bumble, she knows when to get the hell out of the way! And speaking of Hell …

See, each character has a little something that makes them at least semi-unique inside the context of the movie, and that’s always a good idea for a western. But the newly reformed Saint John has a past with Stice that includes run-ins for more than the common gold, women, or glory. Stice spends most of the film offering the golden cross to the various poker players, as though it was his to give alone, and it’s only in the last few “gotcha!” moments of the movie do we find out why. How much is your immortal soul truly worth?

Western Religion is a rollicking good time, and while I think the movie should have been longer to draw out the mini-stories of the other characters and perhaps give Stice and Saint John more fleshing too, if you like a good spaghetti western that has a little bit of everything and then some, this movie’s for you!

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