Patrick Hughes, the writer and director of “Red Hill” sure loves Westerns. The movie is set in a small Australian town, but it might as well be set in the American frontier in the 1860s. Red Hill’s inhabitants ride horses, carry six-shooters and form posses. As the movie opens with beautiful shots of the wilds of Australia, animals are shown peacefully grazing until they hear something disturbing. Bad things are riding into Red Hill.
The first person to arrive in town is the perfectly named Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten) a young police officer from the big city. His very pregnant wife (Claire van der Boom) had a miscarriage in the past and so a doctor recommended they move to a more relaxed environment to keep her blood pressure down. At first glance, the town of Red Hill is the definition of peace and quiet. It is so small a town map can fit on a street sign and when Cooper walks into police headquarters he finds officer Barlow (Kevin Harrington) asleep at his desk. Yet police chief Old Bill (Steve Bisley) proves to be not so loose on the rules. The tough as nails sheriff grills Cooper about forgetting his firearm at home and makes it clear he has no patience for city boys.
Cooper’s first day at work gets a lot more stressful when the TV reports convict Jimmy Conway (Tom E. Lewis) has escaped from a nearby prison. Years ago Conway killed his wife and tried to kill a Red Hill police officer. Old Bill put him behind bars and now he is riding into town for vengeance. In preparation all able-bodied men are rounded are armed and posted all over town. On top of that there is a storm coming and a farmer thinks there is panther loose.
That Conway is one tough hombre. Dark-skinned, with half of his face scarred, he looks like a character from a Sergio Leone film. As night falls he begins killing all of Old Bill’s deputies and anyone who stands in his way. Without remorse he walks into police headquarters and shoots Barlow with a sawed off shotgun. Seeing a warm cup of coffee on an empty desk, he realizes there is another man in the office and tracks his scent to the bathroom. Yet despite his remorseless killing, every time he draws his gun on Cooper, he spares his life indicating not all is right under the sun.
For the most part this makes for a fun and breezy Western made by people who clearly love the genre. In a world where action movies are filled with fast cuts and the editing is all over the place, “Red Hill” is edited so you actually have moments of tension during the shootouts. During a Mexican standoff you have the classic close-up of the eyes as the gunmen stare at each other to see who will draw first. When Conway corners Old Bill and his men, there is a slow zoom on Bill’s rifle as he decides what to do next.
The movie’s greatest weakness is the piling on of genre clichés. Not only does Cooper have a pregnant wife waiting for him at home, but back in the city he had one of those traumatic incident that means he always hesitates when he has to draw his gun. Of course when the precise moment comes to shoot to kill, he is more than ready.
Then there is the fact that despite Conway is characterized as the most dangerous man this side of the Pecos, there are many occasions when any of Bill’s men could have killed him if they had been brave enough to get out of their hiding places and shoot him in the back. But then, he would die too soon and there wouldn’t be a final standoff between the good guy and the bad guy.
Despite going by the numbers, this is a solid and well-shot Western. Everyone is well cast, from the naïve young cop to the outlaw riding into town. It could be confused for an American cowboy movie if it wasn’t for Conway killing one of Old Bill’s men with a boomerang. Now that is something you don’t often see in Westerns.