You watch a Walter Hill movie and I can basically guarantee you 9 times out of 10 you'll grow a little hair on your chest (or balls, take your pick). That may sound like I'm selling some sort of off-brand, dubious formula for building masculinity, but in actuality it's what Hill has been his stock & trade for the better part of forty years making movies (longer than that, but we can start the marker at 75 with Bronson in Hard Times where he played a bare-knuckle fighter). And boy did the guy know how to shoot a western; he was basically a man who followed in the tradition of people like Hawks and especially (in the case of this movie, The Long Riders) Peckinpah - stories of men in dusters and hats with big hair-dos (facial or head, take your pick) - and who will do what they gotta do to get by in the mean old west.
Indeed you can see Hill progress through three westerns he directed: this film in 1980, which is a little, shall one say, 'cleaner' in terms of it looking not too dirty, the cinematography adding a brown hue but nothing unpleasant to look at; in 1995 with Wild Bill, where we get Jeff Bridges (who was supposed to be slated to appear in this film with brother Beau but it didn't happen), and that shows some more grit, more attitude, Hill getting a little more cynical with time (you can find the review for that a few years back on this blog); and in 2004 he helmed the pilot for David Milch's series Deadwood (also featuring Keith Carradine as a famous Western figure), and here it's the landscape where 'cocksucker' is a comma in a sentence and everything is so gritty it's like shit-black everywhere. If nothing else it's great that Hill got to do these three films - not that these were his only Westerns, of course he did others, and the gangster-western Last Man Standing - to see progression through time as a filmmaker and in his approach to making an iconic genre through his eyes.
As for this film... let's face it, it has a gimmick to hook people in. Not unlike another film made around that time, On Golden Pond (it was neither the first nor hardly the last), the appeal for the studio and, by proxy one should think, for audiences is seeing all of these family members together and playing the roles they have in real life. The Carradines - David, Keith and Robert - play the Youngers (Cole, Jim and Bob respectively); the Quaids - Dennis and Randy - play the Millers (Ed and Clell); the Keaches (yes, you probably didn't really know about James as much as Stacy, but wait till the next one) are the James brothers, Frank and Jesse; and lastly, there's the Guests, Christopher and Nicholas, as the Fords, Charlie and (that fuckin coward) Robert. It's quite a sight to see them altogether - though the Fords are really in only a few scenes, and it's kind of a shock to see Christopher Guest, by and large a comedy actor, in this setting and playing such a guy as Charlie Ford.
|Not even a full roll-call!|
It's an episodic series by design, though it's not hard to follow the characters exactly. The opening is really riveting in just the sense of driven filmmaking, where the camera and cutting is on every movement of characters, watching how others move, and then when violence erupts its in that brutal, slow-motion explosions of people's guts and body parts. Then Dennis Quaid's bank-robber breaks away (he mucked up part of the robbery), and the men go back to their wives or whores and so on. There's a knife-fight mid-way through the movie between Carradine and James Remar (playing a, uh, half-breed I guess, he has the red banana to make him seem like a Native), and that is intense and choreographed in such a way that feels like it has to be great or else. And meanwhile the stiff (but not unfriendly) law-men try to get confessions with no dice, and it all leads up this Big Harrah bank robbery that gets extremely bloody.
Was Hill trying to possibly top Peckinpah? It wouldn't be something I keep coming back to, but it seems as if this is like his Wild Bunch: a group of guys who come together and pull big jobs on banks (also trains, there's one of those, couldn't have Jesse James without that and it's a doozy), and of course the stylized violence is akin to that. It feels raw and unpredictable and alive in that (sort of a) climactic set piece. Indeed the set pieces are the reason to see the movie really. I just wish that Hill had done a better job, via the script of course, to make me care more about these people. Yes they're criminals, but with the exception of Cole Younger and the James brothers I didn't really feel that much of a connection to anyone, which wasn't the case with 'Bunch'. Maybe it's due to the episodic feel, or the (occasional) corn-pone style of music from Ry Cooder (an excellent opening theme, by the way, just not an excellent rest of the score). Just as I feel like I'm getting to know someone it goes to another character and I lose the thread, especially with Randy Quaid and Keith Carradine, who have screen presence but feel underutilized.
I'm sure a lot of this will be irresistible. It's hard not to see why as it has these mega-legendary-iconic characters all together and with these actors as brothers you can feel the chemistry between them (well, maybe not the Fords, but the Guests I think are directed to be rather cold-fish among the lot). It's a solid movie to watch with your dad or uncle or whomever on a lazy weekend afternoon. Not an essential western, however.