Blueberry Review | Feb. 11, 2004 | LISA NESSELSON

An ethereal, stylized fever-dream of America's Old West, "Blueberry" puts all its faith in iconic shorthand embellished with state-of-the-art special effects. Result, in English with dollops of a Native American tongue, shows considerable craft but functions better as a purely visual journey than as the revelatory spiritual crucible it aspires to be. Project's aura is considerable in Gaul, where comicbooks by master illustrator Jean "Moebius" Giraud with writer Jean-Michel Charlier are well known (some 30 volumes have appeared since 1964).

Six years in the making (a year of which helmer Jan Kounen spent studying with an Amazon shaman) and pricey, at around $45 million for a majority-French venture co-produced with the U.K. and Mexico, pic probably could use a shamanic boost to reach satisfying numbers, particularly offshore.

Viewers who found Jim Jarmusch's "Dead Man" profound and rewarding no doubt will enjoy tale of two men whose psyches are bound together on the spiritual plane following an unfortunate incident in the title character's youth. One of the most mystical approaches to the Western this side of "El Topo," "Blueberry" assumes its viewers will find the North American Indian hallucinogen-aided approach to mental health every bit as compelling as "The Lord of the Rings" enthusiasts find Frodo's journey with that pesky ring.

Although the dialogue is idiomatic, spacey touches --- and one underwater nude scene --- single this out as an undeniably European take on the oater. Whether that's a selling point or a slight liability in the international market remains to be seen.

Bulk of pic is a flashback sparked by adult Mike Blueberry (Vincent Cassel ), a Cajun lawman who has recently thrown away his marshal's badge, announcing in voiceover, "He's dead and now it's my turn." The deceased's identity remains a mystery until the final stretch.

At death's door, Mike (nobody calls him "Blueberry" in the course of the film, which is a bit like nobody ever addressing the Caped Crusader as "Batman") recalls the initially wonderful night he lost his virginity to a lovely prostitute. When a gruff older customer, Wally Blount (Michael Madsen ), interrupted their youthful idyll at the brothel, shots were fired and the joint went up in flames. Hugh O'Connor is fresh-faced and adorable as the young Mike and a plausible physical match for Cassel.

Some 20 years later in the small town of Palomito on the Mexico-Arizona border, Mike, with the help of faithful fellow marshal Jimmy McClure (Colm Meaney), officiates under wheelchair-bound sheriff Rolling Star (Ernest Borgnine ). Prosit (Eddie Izzard ), a Prussian with a book full of hand-drawn maps, double-crosses his prospecting partner, Woodhead (Djimon Hounsou ), and is surprised to see his former partner --- none other than Wally --- show up. At stake is alleged gold in mountains sacred to the local Indian tribe.

Also jockeying for the maps is rancher Craig Sullivan (Geoffrey Lewis ), father (in life and on film) to strong-willed Maria (Juliette Lewis ), an appealingly tough frontier lass who carries a torch for Mike.

Mike, who speaks Indian lingo and stumbles through life like he has a perpetual migraine, learns from his Indian buddy Runi (Temuera Morrison) that his "demons" are gaining strength. Scalping, gunplay and betrayal intervene en route to a mental duel on the spirit-demon plane that may be the closest this generation will get to having its own variation on the "Stargate" sequence in Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey." Iridescent snakes and other writhing emblems of shamanic essence are fetchingly rendered via elaborate 3-D animation.

Throughout his visually ravishing sophomore feature, helmer Kounen ("Dobermann") is obviously in command of every frame, employing a supple, fluid camera to investigate human nature and to celebrate nature with a capital N. The camera floats and swirls in the service of widescreen compositions that honor the bold graphic placement of comics.

Thesps are up to their tasks across the board . Rugged vistas in Mexico and Spain look terrific in swooping helicopter shots. Atmospheric score is thoughtful and never overbearing.


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