Case Number 17256


Sony // 1985 // 132 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron (Retired) // September 14th, 2009

The Charge

A dangerous place, in a lawless time...'Til four friends risked all to make things right.

Opening Statement

Success has a funny way of skewing things -- just ask Lawrence Kasdan. In 1980 he helped craft the screenplay for the Star Wars sequel, The Empire Strikes Back. A year later, he penned Raiders of the Lost Ark as well as writing and directing his own well-received noir homage, Body Heat. By the end of 1983, he had added Return of the Jedi and The Big Chill to his growing list of credits, leaving the door wide open for whatever artistic ambition he wanted to fulfill -- and it turns out, it was a Western. Not a revisionist oater where modern pop psychological underpinnings propped up the standard white hat/black hat dynamic. No, Kasdan wanted to revisit the kind of movie John Ford would have made were he still around, bringing a group of then rising Hollywood stars along for the Home on the Range ride. Silverado soared into theaters during the all important Summer of 1985 and, as some predicted, proved that Kasdan was not infallible. In some ways, it suggested his previous accolades were somewhat premature.

Facts of the Case

The story centers on four genial outlaw types who come together under unusual circumstances. After escaping an ambush, Emmett (Scott Glenn, The Right Stuff) discovers Paden (Kevin Kline, A Fish Called Wanda), lying in the desert, left for dead by the hoodlums who robbed him. Together, they agree to travel to the town of Turley to break Emmett's brother Jake (Kevin Costner, Waterworld) out of jail. There, a sharpshooter named Malachi Johnson (Danny Glover, The Color Purple) aids the men in thwarting British sheriff Langston (John Cleese, The Pink Panther 2). They decide to head for the nearby settlement of Silverado and go their separate ways. However, they find themselves back on the same side when a ruthless cattle baron named Ethan McKendrick (Ray Baker, Total Recall) is threatening the land rights of the local population. Together with his paid enforcer, Sheriff Cobb (Brian Dennehy, Cocoon), this frontier despot dominates the territory. With Emmett and Jake vowing to help their sister fight, the quartet decide to face off against the bad guys once and for all.

The Evidence

The problem with Silverado is that it's all reverence and no reinvention. It's so stuck in the numerous formulas and clichés of the classic Hollywood horse opera that it completely forgets why the genre was on the last stages of life support by the early '80s. Kasdan can be admired for taking on the Herculean task of trying to bring the cowboy back to prominence, but this was not the way to do it. As Clint Eastwood would prove seven years later, you need to push the Western forward into the post-modern mindset, not crawl back to the days of Gabby Hayes and Monument valley. For everything he gets right here -- the look, the feel, the fantastic performances, and the clever casting -- the story just sits there. Created with the help of his brother Mark, Kasdan is so desperate to make sure the narrative plays like an old fashioned Wild West morality tale that he forgets to sweep off the cobwebs. Instead, the more contemporary aspects of the production are constantly battling the Six Gun Territory set up for relevance.

And it's a shame, because the performances are very, very good here. Glenn, who never really got a chance to shine as a solid male lead, turns Emmett into an unlikely hero, while Kline comes across as both ruthless and clueless. Glover adds an element of obvious racial tension to the mix, while Cleese and Dennehy play two sides of the same corrupt lawman coin. Additional support comes from Rosanna Arquette, Lynn Whitfield (as Malachi's prostitute sister), Jeff Goldblum (as a gambler nicknamed "Slick") and Linda Hunt (as a saloon owner). But the real revelation here, at least from a broader "breakthrough" conceit, if Kevin Costner. Kasdan tailored the role specifically for the young thespian as payback for cutting him out of his massive mega-hit The Big Chill, and he shines as the crazy, wily Jake. While he still had Sizzle Beach USA and Shadows Run Black in his future, 1985 was the year Costner illustrated his soon to be A-list mantle.

Still, one can't shake the sensation of being stuck in a true geek's ultimate frontier fantasy. The decision to play by the genre rules, to never venture beyond into the oddball morass frequented by the Italian spaghettis or the ultra-violent cruelty of a Peckinpah, leaves the movie limp. Sure, Silverado can be wildly entertaining at times, reminding us why the Western was so popular for nearly 50 years. But with every generation comes a particular point of view, a perspective worth exploring -- and Kasdan's decision to look backward betrays his era. Besides, it takes a talent as large as Steven Spielberg to reinvigorate a tired old type (Raider's Saturday Matinee serialization) with modern energy. Kasdan just can't compete. Sure, if you look hard, you can see subtextual issues regarding ethnicity and gender equity sprinkled among the bravado. But for the most part, Silverado is just a rock solid artifact from years gone by -- for good and for bad.

Of course, what most fans will be wondering is how Sony treats this new Blu-ray version of the title. Visually, the AVC/MPEG-4 1080p High Def image is excellent, with exceptions. There is never an overall consistency. Night scenes offer some grain, while huge exteriors occasionally betray the limits of '80s camera technology. The cinematography by director of photography John Bailey does have its moments of eye-opening brilliance and the 2.40:1 transfer is clearly an improvement over earlier releases. But as with many catalog titles, the studio has obviously cleaned up a previous print and turned it over to the new format. This is not a full blown remastering job. Sonically, Sony does something odd. Instead of only offering Silverado in an English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix, they include one for French and Portuguese as well. Spanish is a straight Surround presentation. In each case, the aural elements are spread out among the speakers, the dialogue demanding a few clicks of the "volume" button to be clearly understood. The ambient noises really add to the effect and Bruce Broughton's musical score hits all the right rodeo notes.

As for extras, the Blu-ray ports over all the content from the 2005 DVD "Gift Set" release, including a very critical commentary from Western scholars Frank Thompson, Steve Aaron and Paul Hutton. This trio takes the modern horse opera to task for messing with their beloved old school set-ups, but this is not a love letter to Kasdan. They have some questions regarding his approach as well as his historical truths. Still, their knowledge is infinite, if definitely confined to the time frame they are talking about (around 2003). They clearly haven't seen recent masterworks like Appaloosa or the 3:10 to Yuma update. Elsewhere, a Making-of featurette avoids electronic press kit puffery to give us real insight into the production, while Kevin Costner sits down for a genial overview of his time "in the saddle." If you have a Profile 2.0 player, you can access the internet and use the 'movieIQ' bonus to get information on the cast, crew, and other trivia regarding the film. Finally, the disc itself is housed in a clever "book jacket" case, a 34 page insert offering more information on the film itself.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

Previous reviewers have noted that Silverado had a much longer running time when it was first previewed and that a great deal of material was cut in order to bring it in closer to a "commerical" two hour running time. Sadly, none of the deleted scenes, including extended bits with Ms. Arquette and Mr. Goldblum are included on the Blu-ray.

Closing Statement

It would be nice to say that, 25 years on, Lawrence Kasdan was some kind of visionary. He could see the need for the kind of laid back storytelling and visual grace of the Golden Era Hollywood horse opera and decided to revisit it like one of the faithful on a pilgrimage. Unfortunately, his deferential determination resulted in something that is only intermittently great. At other times, Silverado is as soggy as the brandished B-movies that led to the demise of the genre. With better recent examples of genre, it's a film that can barely hold up. As for Kasdan, his experience with this personal proposition provided cracks in his commercial appeal, fissures that needed a decade before Wyatt Earp battled Tombstone for true post-modern appreciation. Sometimes, success can lead you astray. Lawrence Kasdan could have done anything he wanted in 1985. Offering up Silverado was indeed a brave move. In retrospect, it was nothing more than a fool's paradise.

The Verdict

Good, but not great, Silverado earns a qualified Not Guilty determination. Similarly, the new Blu-ray is also a mixed bag.

Review content copyright © 2009 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice
Video: 96
Audio: 95
Extras: 85
Acting: 90
Story: 79
Judgment: 86

Perp Profile
Studio: Sony
Video Formats:
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)

Audio Formats:
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (French)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)

* English
* French
* Portuguese
* Spanish

Running Time: 132 Minutes
Release Year: 1985
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13

Distinguishing Marks
* Commentary
* Featurettes
* movieIQ
* Booklet

* IMDb