It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
“The Duel” opens quite promisingly. Two men have chosen to fight to the death using the exact same method shown in Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” video. In one hand, each man holds a knife; their other hands are tied together at the wrist. The film calls it a “Helena Duel," named after the Texas town where this opening sequence takes place. Prior to the violent festivities, a scroll tells us it’s 1866, and Civil War veterans are battling with Mexico over Texan land. These details are irrelevant during the Helena Duel, however. This is a personal matter between two American citizens, Abraham Brand (Woody Harrelson) and Jesse Kingston (Jimmy Lee Jr). As the men dance, evade and slice, director Kieran Darcy-Smith presents the carnage from different vantage points. The quick edits between obstructed and unobstructed views couples with the gruesome sound effects of knife meeting flesh. The result is a brutal, swift and memorable action sequence.
Witnessing the carnage is the younger incarnation of the film’s main character, David Kingston. His presence at his father’s demise sets up a “Kill Bill: Volume 1”-style promise of later retribution and revenge. Fast-forward 16 years, and the adult David (Liam Hemsworth) is now a Texas Ranger assigned to investigate Abraham for a series of murders in a small town near the Rio Grande, where the bodies are dumped. The victims are all Mexican, including the nephew of General Calderon (José Zúñiga), a prominent Mexican figure who, if not satisfied with the Rangers’ ability to get answers, will bring his own militia across the Texas border.
At this point, “The Duel” appears to be your standard-issue revenge Western, which is enough to satisfy. However, Matt Cook’s screenplay has a few extra story aces hidden up its sleeve. Unfortunately, they do little to better this film’s poker hand, because a fella holding five aces is going to look mighty suspicious in a one-deck poker game. Revenge should be enough to drive the story, but “The Duel” also has snake-infused religious mysticism, treacherous women and more than one callback to “The Most Dangerous Game." As the film drags on, not even another Helena Duel can hide that the film is biding its time with unnecessary dramatic filler.
Jesse's death may have been the best thing to happen to his son, for it meant his son might be raised to be decent. David does seem like a nice, if not exactly lovable guy, and Hemsworth ably walks that fine line. There’s a hint of nobility in his decision to seek out Abraham solely to bring him to justice. Yet his devotion to his law enforcement job is several steps higher than his love for Marisol (Alice Braga), the wife betrothed to him by her father as a reward for nursing him back to health. Marisol threatens to abscond if she is left alone while David investigates Abraham, so he has her tag along. It is an unwise decision.