Mill Creek Entertainment // 1958 // 2378 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // September 16th, 2009
Townsperson: You got friends here now, Randall.
Josh Randall: It depends what you mean by friends. Sometimes it's a lot easier to recognize enemies.
As a western TV series, Wanted: Dead or Alive is a rousing and enjoyable show from the heyday of TV westerns. It would not be nearly so significant, however, if it had to rely solely on its writing and action, both of which are good but not spectacular. In this case, it was the casting that made the show so important. Wanted: Dead or Alive is the TV show that launched the career of acting icon Steve McQueen, turning him from a struggling actor into a household name. While this DVD reissue isn't quite what it could be, the combination of McQueen's star power and decent execution make Wanted: Dead or Alive a worthy series.
Josh Randall (Steve McQueen, Le Mans) is a bounty hunter in the old west who hunts down criminals who have prices on their heads. Randall is exceptionally good at his job but he is different from other bounty hunters, however, because he almost always donates his proceeds to charity anonymously.
This eleven-disc set compiles all 94 episodes from the show's three seasons.
Wanted: Dead or Alive is in many ways the exact opposite of a show like Wagon Train. Though both shows were Westerns, they approached their storytelling in completely different ways. Wagon Train, and other shows in that vein, were dense, character-driven dialogue-heavy shows with lengthy complex stories in which the action was only used when necessary. Wanted: Dead or Alive, by contrast, is pure two-fisted six-gun action. Each episode clocks in at 25 minutes (30 with commercials) and most of that time is taken up with gunfights, fistfights, or chases. Because McQueen is the only regular cast member, there isn't much need to develop or involve supporting characters. Guest stars are often introduced quickly, with just enough writing to set up the episode's story, and then the dialogue gets out the way for the action.
Such minimalism makes Wanted: Dead or Alive seem simplistic. There are no attempts to deal with complex issues and because there are no serial storylines, the episodes are self-contained and even interchangeable. That, actually, makes the show much less dated than some of its contemporaries. Without dated dialogue or topical issues, each episode simply rises and falls on the action and mystery story, and most of the time the episodes succeed. The action is well-choreographed and shot, with some exciting shootouts and chases. The mystery that Josh has to solve in each episode, sometimes simply looking for a character and other times uncovering the reasons why, is frequently laid out quite well, considering the limited time given. The characterizations, as brief as they are, are also not bad. There are a few one-dimensional characters here and there, but for the most part the characters are not as cartoony as you might fear. Some, such as the villain's girlfriend in "Railroaded," are even given surprising complexity.
Of course, the reason most viewers will want to watch the show is to see the performance that made McQueen a star. He demonstrates here why he earned his stardom. In the early episodes, he is definitely the shotgun-wielding tough guy fans want to see. As the series progresses, however, McQueen also gets to demonstrate some impressive comic timing and wit. Episodes like "The Twain Shall Meet" and "Triple Vise" allow him to show off a welcome self-deprecating streak that just makes his action scenes all the more entertaining. Viewers will also enjoy seeing the surprising array of future stars who guest-starred on the series, like Mary Tyler Moore (as a bandit's moll), Lee Van Cleef (as a hostage-taking killer), and Michael Landon (as a wounded murderer).
There is actually one minor recurring storyline and it's not very good. Towards the end of the second season, Josh was briefly given a partner named Jason Nichols (Wright King, A Streetcar Named Desire), a prudish bounty hunter who frowns on drinking, gambling, and chasing women. Though it's understandable that the show's writers felt the need to shake up the show's formula with a new character, this addition was a mistake. Jason Nichols is an irritating character who does little more than whine and ask endless questions. Jason is thankfully absent by the third season, but the string of episodes during this stretch could have been much better without him.
Also, this DVD issue is not great. Wanted: Dead or Alive was originally issued on DVD in separate season sets that are all now out of print. For this reissue, only five featurettes from those sets have been ported over: "The Women of Wanted: Dead or Alive" (11:10), "Reckless" (8:39), "The Art of the Replica" (4:41), "The Mare's Leg" (8:37), and "Winchester: A Weapon of Legend" (8:15). Unfortunately, these are all pretty useless, addressing trivia such as Josh's gun (a sawed-off shotgun dubbed "the Mare's Leg") and recycling clips from the series heavily with little insight. Mill Creek Entertainment has also not done a particularly good job technically. Each disc has as many as nine episodes crammed onto it, resulting in considerable compression and artefacting. The Dolby Mono track is adequate, if a little soft.
Both Western fans and Steve McQueen fans should find plenty to like in Wanted: Dead or Alive. The show is entertaining enough just by itself, but coupled with McQueen's stellar performance, it becomes a genuine pleasure. Fans who already own the previous DVD issues probably needn't bother, but those looking to get this series at a pretty decent list price ($29.98) will find this a good purchase, even if the reissue quality isn't the best.
Review content copyright © 2009 Victor Valdivia; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Mill Creek Entertainment
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 2378 Minutes
Release Year: 1958
MPAA Rating: Not Rated