Paramount // 1970 // 114 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // May 31st, 2011
Give 'em hell, John.
Like 1966's El Dorado, Howard Hawks' final film, Rio Lobo, is something of a loose riff on his most popular western, 1959's Rio Bravo. Some even like to call Rio Lobo a remake of the earlier movie, but that goes too far. While it lifts certain archetypal western plot elements from either Rio Bravo or earlier shared sources, and it features a Hawksian band of casually competent men faced with a difficult task and approaching it with humor and professional know-how, Rio Lobo is its own movie with its own set of strengths...and weaknesses.
Rio Lobo opens with a fantastically conceived and executed train heist in which a group of Confederate soldiers led by Captain Pierre Cordona (Jorge Rivero, The Sin of Adam and Eve) grease train tracks and use a hive of hornets to steal a supply of gold intended to payroll the Union army. Their plan would have been perfect if not for the dogged pursuit of Colonel Cord McNally (John Wayne, The Searchers) of the Union army, who runs them down, recaptures the gold, and lands Cordona and his men in a Union prison camp until the end of the war.
After hostilities have ceased, McNally is still sore about the heist, but not with Cordona, whom he considers an honorable soldier who was only carrying out his duty according to the rules of war. McNally wants to ferret out the Union turncoat who tipped Cordona off about the gold shipment. Joined by Cordona, McNally's quest lands him in the little town of Blackthorne, Texas, where he rescues one-time snake oil saleswoman Shasta Delaney (Jennifer O'Neill, Summer of '42) from an abusive lawman from neighboring Rio Lobo who, it turns out, is connected to the gold heist. The trio travels to Rio Lobo where they learn that Union traitor Ike Gorman (Victor French, Little House on the Prairie) has changed his name to Ketcham and is running an illegal land-grabbing scheme against local ranchers. Ketcham has enlisted the help of Rio Lobo's sheriff to pry the land from the ranchers using threats, intimidation, and extortion. McNally is determined to capture Ketcham, force him to sign the land deeds back over to the ranchers, and hold him responsible for his treasonous acts during the war. Helping him out is a colorful cast of characters, including Jack Elam (Support Your Local Sheriff) as a whiskey-drinking crotchety old man and David Huddleston (The Big Lebowski) as a kindly dentist.
Rio Lobo delivers a slam-bang opening train heist as well as a fantastically constructed gunfight comprising most of its third act, but slogs along during most of its middle thanks to stiff performances from the majority of its lead players. Latin American bodybuilder and cinema idol Jorge Rivero is supposed to be the movie's dashing young hero, but struggles to emote through the English dialogue and is completely squashed by John Wayne's outsized screen presence. Jennifer O'Neill is easy on the eyes, but her only strong scenes are those in which she exchanges snappy banter with Wayne. She has little real chemistry with Rivero. Christopher Mitchum (son of screen legend Robert Mitchum) barely registers as the scrappy and resourceful former Confederate soldier whose plight drives much of the goings on in the little town of Rio Lobo. The movie's second act is partially redeemed by fine work from a variety of solid character actors. Jack Elam steps into the scruffy old man role played by Walter Brennan in earlier Hawks productions (including Rio Bravo). He's outstanding, delivering mostly restrained comic relief along with a believable level of gunfighting competence. Victor French's turn as the vile weasel Ketchum is brief but memorable (one of the movie's overriding flaws is that the villainous sheriff who acts as Ketcham's enforcer, played by former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Mike Henry, is practically a non-presence, leaving the movie without a truly menacing antagonist).
While the younger cast labors under the weight of stylized genre dialogue that seems more appropriate to filmmaking of a decade or so earlier, John Wayne confidently carries the show. He effortlessly dominates every scene he's in (which is most of them), towering over Rivero (who isn't a small man) and the rest of the cast, barking orders, and shooting off sardonic one-liners with such effortless ease that he doesn't even appear to be acting. If Rio Lobo is worth two hours of anyone's time, it's for the opportunity to see Wayne's swaggering command of the screen even when he's surrounded by marginally competent performers. It's easy to dismiss John Wayne as a screen icon with little real thespian range, but Rio Lobo is an object lesson in the indelible power of charisma on the silver screen as well as the subtle dynamism of Wayne's acting style, which, limited in range though it may be, simply is without calling attention to itself with the self-conscious flourishes of an intellectualized craft.
Given its breadth, scope, and more than occasional brilliance, it would have been great if Howard Hawks' directorial career could have ended on a higher note than Rio Lobo, but the movie does manage to mitigate some of its weak performances and second-act pacing issues with a few Hawksian complexities. One of Hawks' great obsessions during his long filmmaking career was the theme of manly honor and professionalism. Rio Bravo was made in response to Fred Zinneman's High Noon because Hawks found Gary Cooper's pleading with common townsfolk for help against a band of villainous gunfighters shamefully unprofessional, the sort of thing that gets innocents killed and just isn't done by a lawman of any character and skill. Whatever its flaws, Rio Lobo delights by starting off as a seemingly predictable game of cat-and-mouse between rival Union and Confederate officers, but then skews in unexpected directions as the rivals team up on behalf of a common cause. In Hawks' world, once wartime hostilities cease, McNally and Cordona harbor no ill-will against one another over something as silly and arbitrary as their having once worn different colored uniforms. Each recognizes the other as an honorable, stone-cold professional. Their alliance is easy and natural. Conversely, the fact that Ketcham once wore the Union blue doesn't save the craven, greedy bastard from McNally's considerable wrath.
Rio Lobo is a middle-of-the-road Hawks/Wayne effort, and it's been treated as such on Blu-ray. The 1080p/VC-1 transfer doesn't sparkle, but it's also not marred by excessive digital manipulation. The image is relatively flat and lifeless with underwhelming color reproduction, but grain levels are satisfying and detail in close-ups is solid.
The DTS-HD 5.1 expansion of the movie's original monaural audio track is surprisingly satisfying. The minor cognitive dissonance produced by the track's clarity, full dialogue, and discernible low end is probably the result of this relic of late '50s-style westerns having been made at the outset of the '70s. In any event, you won't use Rio Lobo to show your sound gear off to friends, but it does offer a satisfying presentation of a limited source. The disc also includes a lossy English mono option, as well as mono dubs in five different languages.
In terms of extras, you get nada (unless you consider scene selection an extra).
Rio Lobo may be watchable as a (barely) competently executed John Wayne adventure, but it's not the sort of movie on which I'd spend hard-earned dough to add to my Blu-ray collection.
Guilty as charged.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (German)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Japanese)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Spanish, Castilian)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
* Spanish (Castilian)
Running Time: 114 Minutes
Release Year: 1970
MPAA Rating: Rated G