In “The Salvation,” a peaceful Danish immigrant (Mads Mikkelsen) turns out to be more dangerous than he seems, wreaking bloody revenge in the American West after being wronged. It is a cliche plot for an action movie (see “Death Wish,” “Taken,” “John Wick”), but not so much for a Western, particularly the spaghetti Westerns “The Salvation” owes much to. Director Kristian Levring copies big landscape shots, character archetypes and even title fonts straight out of films like “Death Rides a Horse” and the original “Django,” but has a plot rarely seen in the genre. There are no long scenes of horseback riding, no dramatic trumpet swells, duels or prostitutes with hearts of gold, just grit, guns and growly voices. It’s an interesting idea, and one that proves mostly entertaining.
The film opens in 1871 in the American West seven years after Denmark’s defeat in the second Schleswig War. Jon (Mikkelsen) and his brother (Mikael Persbrandt) are former Danish soldiers just trying to live peacefully on the frontier. Jon’s wife and young son arrive to live with them, but are viciously assaulted and murdered on the stagecoach trip to Jon’s farm. Jon eventually catches up to the criminals and kills them, just in time to bury his loved ones. While in the midst of his grieving, Jon finds out that he unknowingly killed the brother of ruthless killer Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who has been hired to drive the other settlers off their oil-rich land. After the corrupt local government sells Jon out, he barely escapes alive and sets out to settle the score.
True to its standard action movie plot, “The Salvation” is a film dedicated to making its characters interesting. It has to be; nobody wants to watch a boring protagonist wander around for 90 minutes. The script is also incredibly thin, and characters get barely a minute of backstory when they talk at all. Luckily, the protagonist is Mikkelsen, a great actor with great screen presence. Morgan is also good as the villain, and Eva Green’s turn as a mute woman planning her own revenge against the bad guys adds a good layer to the story and tone.
Speaking of tone, the movie banks a little too much on grit for a story with so little depth. Besides one or two dark jokes, “The Salvation” is completely humorless, which makes it a bit of a trying experience. The film is also a bit too quick to have its female characters sexually assaulted, and even though Green is the secondary protagonist, she is often just a prop to make the villain look meaner. The shootouts are well-shot and fun to watch once they get started, but in comparison to “Django Unchained” or 2010’s “True Grit,” they are lacking. In the hands of a filmmaker with a better sense of character and fun, “The Salvation” could have been a great popcorn flick. As it is, it is a perfectly okay way to see Mikkelsen be really cool for a while, which is just fine with me.