Plied with fiction and short on depth, the new biopic of legendary Australian outlaw Ned Kelly plays like "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" without the excitement, charm and humor.
Bearded and brooding but otherwise uncharismatic, Heath Ledger stars as the folk-hero bushranger (Aussie for "cowboy"), who according to this film was an upstanding citizen of the Outback frontier until contemptible, crooked, downright sinister lawmen drove him to a life of crime by picking on his family.
They jailed his ma, molested his teenage sister, and falsely accused him and his brothers of horse rustling. They "started a war" against us, Kelly says in voice-over. "So I killed their coppers. I robbed their banks."
But apparently he did so only as a down-under Robin Hood, if you believe the scene in which Kelly demands one of his gang-member brothers give back a pocket watch during a hold-up, scolding that "if we act like common thieves, that's just what they'll call us."
Actually, Ledger's best moments are when he's railing against injustice. But if this film weren't based on fact, there would be little to hold one's interest. There's so little spark of life in the rote performances that even magnetic Orlando Bloom ("Pirates of the Caribbean," "Lord of the Rings"), playing Kelly's lieutenant Joe Byrne, seems gray and nondescript.
The same is true of Naomi Watts as a married Englishwoman with whom Kelly has an obligatory, incongruously modern (i.e. sexed-up), movie-shorthand romance, and of Geoffrey Rush, who has a strangely lackluster role as a tracker leading a phalanx of police in dogged pursuit of the Kelly Gang through the Australian wilds, even setting a forest on fire and poisoning a stream just to flush them out.
Directed by Gregor Jordan ("Buffalo Soldiers"), who does have an eye for beautiful vistas (or maybe that's just cinematographer Oliver Stapleton), "Ned Kelly" picks up a bit as it builds toward the showdown that made a legend of the man. The bandit's cleverness finally comes into play as the gang corrals all the civilians to safety (or so they think) at a remote outpost and sports homemade steel armor (helmets, chest and leg plates) to await a train full of cops for an all-night shoot-out. But coming in the last 10 minutes, it's not enough to save the film anymore than it's enough to save the Kelly boys from their fate.