In the liner notes, composer Joe Kraemer explains how he perceived the film as a “neo-western”. As such, he was at pains to avoid the Old Western cliches, and drew up a number of rules for himself to keep the call of the passe at bay. He then goes on to explain how he broke each and every one of them.
The slide to recidivism is steep when creativity is on the up and up. Kraemer is quite a newcomer in the composer ranks, and if he’s learnt anything from this gig it must be to go with his gut. Kraemer’s good fortune was that he had more time on this project than the average write-it-and-record-it-on-the-run deadlines imposed by the contemporary film-making machine. He gradually realised that instead of limiting himself with superficial guidelines, innovation comes more readily from inspiration.
Inspiration came, firstly, in the shape of a big major-minor chord — backed with even bigger pounding timpani. It is an interesting twist. The major-minor chord is that slightly dissonant harmony often heard as a sustained, quickly-strummed arpeggio in the spy genre. Especially those not taking themselves too seriously: James Bond, and even Get Smart! Notably the chord inevitably rings out at the end of phrases. Like its name suggests, it is an ambiguous harmony, a musical question mark with a hint of irony. To use it at the very beginning, as the cornerstone of a score, is a bold stroke.
And it is the timpani that make it work, adding a weight that removes it from the role of parody. It is this sort of intuitive initiative, rather than an adherence to restrictions, has realised a compellingly dark and brooding score.
Kraemer’s initial self-imposed guidelines were: no guitar, no big orchestra and no songs. Every flouting of his personal code-of-conduct(ing) bore fruit. Perhaps the rule-bending allowed Kraemer to tap into a criminal conscience, but more likely his instincts told him that it was possible to be subtly derivative and still original.
So the big (guitar-strummed) major-minor chord segues to a vacillating riff in the mode of Thomas Newman, and the most menacing motif, reprised for the End Titles features castanets galloping on the steady back of Mission Impossible-style bass ostinato from the piano.
The tight interaction of guitar, piano and timpani provides much of the score’s refined tension but Kraemer relented to use a large orchestra for cues demanding immensity, with particularly clever use of low-toned woodwinds and brass.
Finally, he even supplied a song: a humorous cocktail-themed ditty that is a pinch of salt short of a zinger, but still engagingly instrumented with whistles, gurgles, other miscellaneous bar noises and a pre-chorus, pseudo-Mexican patois that might be a carefully considered dab of regionalism, or might just as well have been the happy result of one too many pre-vocal session margaritas.
Published June 28, 2001