MGM // 1980 // 99 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // July 2nd, 2011
All the world likes an outlaw. For some damn reason they remember 'em.
"First getting shot, then getting married -- bad habits."
Over the course of 99 minutes, we witness the life and times of the famed James-Younger gang. Over the course of the next few years, banks will be robbed, friends will betray friends and many will die. Among the participants in this violent drama: Frank (Stacy Keach, W.) and Jesse James (James Keach, Walk the Line), Ed (Dennis Quaid, The Rookie) and Clell Miller (Randy Quaid, The Last Picture Show), Cole (David Carradine, Kill Bill), Jim (Keith Carradine, Nashville) and Bob Younger (Robert Carradine, The Big Red One) and Charlie (Christopher Guest, Best in Show) and Robert Ford (Nicholas Guest, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan).
Though director Walter Hill has directed some very fine films over the course of his career (Southern Comfort, The Warriors, 48 Hours), most of his westerns feel like films that somehow fail to live up their potential. Wild Bill and Geronimo: An American Legend are movies that leave the viewer curiously unsatisfied despite their technical merits and impressive casts, and Hill's Yojimbo/A Fistful of Dollars remake Last Man Standing manages to turn a thrilling historical mash-up premise (a prohibition-era spaghetti western) into something surprisingly dull.
Though Hill would eventually deliver a terrific western in the form of the AMC miniseries Broken Trail, his 1980 outing The Long Riders is yet another horse opera that rarely becomes as compelling as it ought to. The story of the James-Younger gang had been previously covered in numerous westerns, but Hill had two ideas that would supposedly set his version apart. The first was that the film would place an emphasis on character and mood rather than on action scenes; thus making Jesse and the boys a little deeper than they might have seemed in previous installments. The second idea was to cast a host of real-life brothers in the roles of the historical brothers featured in the film, which would enhance the naturalistic chemistry and believability of the relationships between them.
Hill's concept is sound, but the execution is disappointing. The combined forces of a brief running time, a relaxed pace, and a large cast of characters translates into most of the players being short-changed and not getting an ample opportunity to make a solid impression. It moves and is structured like the double-length pilot of a decent TV show; not a good thing considering that it covers the Jesse James saga from the height of his popularity to his death at the hands of Robert Ford. As such, the film feels like a series of gritty character sketches and violent episodes that feel increasingly disconnected as the flick marches on. When the dramatic death scene arrives at the end, it has curiously little weight (though that's arguably because we've now seen a similarly-staged death scene presented in far more striking fashion in Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a film that tops this one in every possible area save for stunt casting).
The notion of casting real-life brothers was a good idea, but many of the role assignments seem wrong. Stacy Keach is terrific in his handful of scenes as Frank James, but he gets far less screen time than his brother. James Keach is the biggest casting problem in the film, as he lacks any of the charisma or screen presence necessary to play Jesse James (far and away the most prominent player in this flick). Dennis Quaid is basically relegated to a cameo while the less interesting Randy is given a much larger role, and Nicholas Guest is terribly flat in the role of Robert Ford. Christopher Guest is better as Charlie, but both characters have little to do. Only the Carradines are correctly cast, as David's charming portrait of Cole Younger is easily the acting highlight of the film (he also gets the movie's best scene; a creatively staged knife fight in a brothel). Keith also brings his warm naturalism to a couple of key scenes, and Robert is handed a relatively insignificant role.
The Long Riders arrives on Blu-ray sporting a ho-hum 1080p/1.85:1 transfer: not too good, not too bad, not really worth making a fuss about either way. This is a standard-issue catalogue title release from MGM that looks better than the DVD version yet which rarely hits any sort of hi-def glory. Facial detail tends to be sharp, but long shots sometimes struggle. There's a good deal of grain, though it doesn't appear that any artificial tampering has been done. Audio is similarly middling, as the action scenes get the job done without giving your speakers any sort of workout. Ry Cooder's twangy score (which is how every Ry Cooder score can be described) comes through with strength and most of the dialogue is clean. The only extra on the disc is a theatrical trailer.
I realize that The Long Riders is quite beloved in some circles, but it's largely an underwhelming experience. I'd advise checking out The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford as an alternative.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 1980
MPAA Rating: Rated R