Son of a gun

Movie: Once Upon a Time in the Midlands

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Our Rating: 3.50

Writer/director Shane Meadows' "Once Upon a Time in the Midlands" superimposes spaghetti-Western plot dynamics (and soundtrack music to match) on the distinctly non-cowboy landscape of present-day Nottingham. But the movie owes as much to the freakery of daytime TV as it does to the legacy of Men with No Name.

Our heroes are an extended family of working stiffs whose lives start to come apart when they appear together on an ambush-format chat show. In a personal-best demonstration of cojones, sheepish garage manager Dek (Rhys Ifans) pops the question to his live-in love, Shirley (Shirley Henderson) -- only to be turned down flat. Humiliated before the entire world -- or at least that portion of the world that watches U.K. Springer knockoffs -- Dek sinks into hollow-eyed self-pity, certain that Shirley is about to dump him for good.

That may be a self-fulfilling prophecy, but Dek's cause certainly isn't aided by the re-emergence of Jimmy (Robert Carlyle), the small-time hood who fathered Shirley's daughter and then split for Scotland. Coming upon the nationally broadcast turndown, Jimmy sees it as his cue to re-enter Shirley's orbit and reclaim her for good. But first, he has to get away from his criminal compatriots, an oafish lot who haven't quite got the hang of working in disguise (and who, memorably, fight pitched turf battles with a gang that dresses as circus clowns).

The inevitable showdown between Dek and Jimmy is all very pat, but the cast fleshes out Meadows' thin storyline with some comically rich character work. Ricky Tomlinson has some good moments as Charlie, the semi-estranged husband of Dek's foster sister. (Well, we said it was an "extendedÃ? family.) Often seen on the toilet, Charlie is the best darn country singer in the Midlands. Then again, it helps that he appears to have no competition whatsoever.

Anyone with a soft spot for milquetoasts will respond instinctively to Ifans' portrayal of Dek, a basset-faced coward who lets his insecurities get the better of him. As for Carlyle, his stew-thick brogue is a compelling argument for subtitles. I think I caught one out of his every four words.

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