Review: ‘Buckley’s Chance,’ starring Bill Nighy, Victoria Hill and Milan Burch

September 2, 2021

by Carla Hay

Milan Burch in “Buckley’s Chance” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Buckley’s Chance”

Directed by Tim Brown

Culture Representation: Taking place in Western Australia’s Outback and briefly in New York City, the dramatic film “Buckley’s Chance” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Aborigine people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 12-year-old American boy, who grew up in New York City, reluctantly moves with his widowed mother to a remote Australian ranch so that they can live with his paternal grandfather, and the boy encounters unexpected dangers shortly after moving to Australia. 

Culture Audience: “Buckley’s Chance” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching family melodramas that have uneven acting and many ridiculous scenarios.

Bill Nighy in “Buckley’s Chance” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Buckley’s Chance” starts off as an earnest but bland family drama before it takes a steep nosedive into being an idiotic chase movie with very little suspense on how it’s all going to end. Not even the talent of the great British actor Bill Nighy can save this corny mess of a film. If the crime drama part of the movie had been written better, “Buckley’s Chance” might have been a film worth watching. But it all just becomes sloppily executed nonsense, including expecting people to believe that a dingo (a wild canine) can suddenly act like a friendly domesticated dog that knows how to do tricks, like shake hands with people.

Directed by Tim Brown, who co-wrote the “Buckley’s Chance” screenplay with Willem Wennekers, “Buckley’s Chance” is the story of what happens when a troubled 12-year-old American boy named Ridley Anderson (played by Milan Burch) moves with his widowed mother from New York City to a remote Outback ranch in Western Australia. Ridley finds out more about his Australian father’s side of the family, and he ends up getting kidnapped over a property deal. Ridley’s kidnapping doesn’t happen until the last third of the movie. Until then, expect to see a lot of scenes of Ridley pouting and sulking because he never wanted to move to Australia in the first place.

Ridley’s mother Gloria Anderson (played by Victoria Hill) is kind and patient, but she’s at her wit’s end on what to do about Ridley. They moved to Australia because Ridley has a history of having anger problems, which have gotten worse ever since Ridley’s father died about a year ago. Ridley’s emotional problems have been so bad that he’s been expelled from several schools. And because Ridley was very close to his father, Ridley grief has made him more likely to lash out in anger. He’s not dangerously violent, but he has very rude tantrums.

Gloria has made the drastic decision to start over in Australia, a country where she’s never lived and where she doesn’t know anyone. Ridley and Gloria will be living at Buckley’s Chance, the name of the sheep ranch that’s owned by widower Spencer Anderson (played by Nighy), the estranged father of Gloria’s late husband Bryce Anderson. The ranch is in an unnamed town in Western Australia, but the movie was actually filmed in Dangar Falls and Broken Hill in Australia. Bryce (played by Josef Brown, in a few flashbacks), who was Spencer’s only child, was a firefighter who died while saving people in a fire.

Bryce and Spencer hadn’t seen or spoken to each other for at least 20 years before Bryce died. Spencer did not attend Bryce’s funeral. Gloria knows very little about what went wrong in the relationship between Bryce and Spencer, because it was a sore subject that Bryce didn’t want to discuss with anyone. All she knows is that Bryce abruptly moved to the United States not long after he graduated from high school, because of a falling out that Bryce had with Spencer.

It’s under these tense circumstances that Gloria is hoping that moving in with Spencer will help heal this family rift. She also wants Ridley to be in an environment where he can have more discipline and be less likely to get into trouble. Of course, Ridley immediately hates living in a place that’s vastly different from New York City, and he’s resentful of having to abide by Spencer’s strict rules. Spencer is determined to turn this city boy into a skilled rancher.

The only thing that Ridley is interested in doing is filming videos with his video camera. It seems like he’s an aspiring director but he doesn’t really know it yet. Spencer has no patience for Ridley’s compulsion to constantly make video recordings of everything. When they go camping together, Spencer gets irritated when Ridley wants to film Spencer doing mundane things such as taking a nap or starting a fire.

Needless to say, Ridley and Spencer clash with each other almost from the beginning. When Spencer gives Ridley the nickname Riddles, Ridley snaps at his grandfather that his name is Ridley, and he better not be called Riddles. When Spencer tries to teach Ridley how to use a rifle by telling him to shoot a dingo that’s on the property, Ridley fumbles and misses his target, and Spencer gripes, “That was a waste of a bullet.”

Gloria doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with Spencer either. She’s very wary of letting Ridley learn how to use a gun. But when Spencer explains that people who live in this rural area need to know how to use a gun for protection against wild animals, Gloria reluctantly lets Spencer teach Ridley, on the condition that Ridley can only use a gun when an adult is nearby.

Ridley has a problem with the idea of shooting dingos, while Spencer insists that dingos need to be kept away and killed if necessary because dingos could be harmful to people and the ranch’s sheep. There’s a small pack of dingos (about five or six) that hang out in an open field near the ranch. One of the dingos is a tan male that escaped being shot by Spencer.

Ridley and the dingo make eye contact in a way that you just know this dingo is going to become like a pet to Ridley. It’s one of the more ridiculous aspects of this movie because the cutesy and contrived way that this dingo behaves is not like a how a feral dingo would behave in real life. Ridley sees the dingo again, when he rescues the canine from being caught in a barbed wire fence while Ridley and Spencer have gone camping.

Spencer has a friendly ranch hand named Jules Churchill (played by Kelton Pell), who is the only Australian adult who doesn’t seem to immediately get on Ridley’s nerves. Jules is a former high school classmate of Bryce, who was a star player on the school’s rugby team. Gloria and Ridley get a little bit more insight about what Bryce was like in his teen years from Jules, since Spencer is very resistant to talking about Bryce.

Spencer tells Ridley that the ranch’s name Buckley’s Chance is inspired by the Australian folk tale of an escaped prisoner named William Buckley, who hid in the wilderness. Years after most people thought Buckley was dead, he suddenly came out of the wilderness—and he was healthy and in great shape. His against-all-odds survival spawned the catch phrase of something having a “Buckley’s chance” if it can beat the odds and exceed expectations. It’s predictably used as a heavy-handed metaphor for what Ridley experiences in this story.

One night, Ridley overhears Spencer talking to Jules in a private conversation. Spencer tells Jules, “I’m trying to run a sheep station, not take care of a grieving widow and her son.” Jules asks why Spencer didn’t decline Gloria’s request to live at the ranch. Spencer explains that he didn’t want it on his conscience to turn his back on his family.

After hearing this conversation, Ridley feels even more alienated from Spencer and even more miserable living in Australia. Ridley verbally lashes out and throws tantrums in public and in private. Slowly but surely, more information eventually comes out about what really happened to cause Bryce to move far away from Australia and stop talking to Spencer. But there’s a lot more family angst, with Ridley at the center, to get through before these family secrets are revealed.

“Buckley’s Chance” unrealistically shows only a few people (including Spencer and Jules) working on the ranch. It’s a low-budget movie, but it wouldn’t have been that hard to hire some extras for a scene or two to show more people working at this ranch. It’s a ranch that’s supposedly so huge that a big company named Plunkett wants to buy the northeastern part of the ranch’s land, but Spencer has refused the lucrative offer.

It’s not stated what type of company Plunkett is, but it’s common knowledge that if Plunkett owned the land that it wants to buy from Spencer, the company would be able to employ numerous people in the area. Many of the townspeople aren’t happy that Spencer is being stubborn about refusing to sell this part of his land. They think Spencer’s unwillingness to sell the land is depriving the area of an economic boost that the area needs.

One of the pro-Plunkett townspeople is named Cooper (played by Martin Sacks), who angrily confronts Spencer about this stymied business deal when Spencer, Ridley and Gloria are having lunch at a diner one day. It’s the first time that Ridley and Gloria find out that the land is a big source of contention and that Spencer is very unpopular with the locals because he refuses to sell the land. Cooper has two lowlife cronies named Oscar Wallace (played by Anthony Gooley) and Mick Wallace (played by Ben Wood)—two dimwitted brothers who later threaten Spencer, who remains unmoved.

Without Cooper’s knowledge, Oscar and Mick end up kidnapping Ridley in a foolish attempt to get Spencer to change his mind about selling the land. Oscar is the bossy brother who comes up with the haphazard schemes and gives orders to Mick. Oscar and Mick plan to hold Ridley hostage until Spencer sells the land to Plunkett.

It’s a crazy idea, of course, and these bungling criminals find out that Ridley is smarter than they thought he was. Ridley escapes and encounters all kinds of obstacles in trying to find his way back to the ranch or to find help, when he has no food, water or survival gear. Blundering brothers Mick and Oscar are in hot pursuit.

And suddenly, Ridley has unrealistic strength, as if he’s some kind of superhero. There he is hanging off of a deadly cliff like he’s Spider-Man. There he is surviving a deadly waterfall like he’s Aquaman. And, of course, the dingo shows up to help Ridley, who names the dog Buckley. None of this is spoiler information, because it’s all in the “Buckley’s Chance” trailer.

And even though a 12-year-old boy has gone missing in the Australian Outback, the search-and-rescue team is woefully small, consisting of only a few police officers. An unnamed patrol officer (played by Julia Billington) is the only cop who’s consistently shown doing any real investigating. However, the one thing that’s somewhat realistic about the investigation is that the adults mistakenly think at first that Ridley has run away, not been kidnapped. Considering Ridley’s troubled history, and because the kidnappers didn’t leave a ransom note, it would be easy to make that assumption.

The hokey tone of “Buckley’s Chance” is even more annoying because of the cornball musical score that sounds like it’s from a sappy TV-movie of the week that has absolutely no interest in doing anything original. It all just a blatant sign that “Buckley’s Chance” will follow the same overused formula of other movies about a boy lost in the wilderness. And although the human/dingo bonding in “Buckley’s Chance” can be considered endearing, it’s more than a little irresponsible to make it look like a dingo can suddenly act like a domesticated dog that’s got some training.

The acting in “Buckley’s Chance” is either mediocre or terrible. Nighy is a better actor in other movies, and he struggles with doing any accent that isn’t British. His natural British accent comes through many times, even though he’s supposed to be portraying a lifelong Australian. “Buckley’s Chance” is told from the perspective of Ridley. And unfortunately, this role needed a more talented actor than Burch, who is too stiff in some scenes and who over-emotes in other scenes.

“Buckley’s Chance” does have some good scenic cinematography of Australia, but you can find similar footage from many professional video travelogues of Australia. At least in a travelogue, you wouldn’t have to sit through a lot of terribly unrealistic action scenes and the cheesy melodrama that stinks up “Buckley’s Chance.” In an effort to make this movie seem more exciting, the filmmakers overstuffed the last third of the movie with idiotic action scenes that ruined any shot of credibility that this movie would have had.

Vertical Entertainment released “Buckley’s Chance” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on August 13, 2021.

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