Judge Brett Cullum weighs in on a western with two of the sexiest cowboys in Hollywood—Casper Van Dien and Ernest Borgnine.
A fight is always in the cards
Aces 'n Eights is a familiar-feeling Western that follows a lot of the old clichés. The story is that of a retired gunslinger (Casper Van Dien, Starship Troopers) who settles down on an Arizona ranch run by an aging farmer (Ernest Borgnine, The Wild Bunch). The railroad is coming through town, and the property they are on is right in the way of progress. Worse still, the evil railroad man has hired a gun-crazy gang to kill the owners of any acres people are not willing to sell. Will the gunslinger come out of retirement to defend everyone against the land grab by the railroad?
Aces 'n Eights was produced as a cable project for Ion, which is coming close to what the Sci Fi channel has been doing for years with original programming, except instead of tales from the stars they are doing feature length westerns. For a "made for basic cable TV" production, the film has a great cast and a surprising amount of gore and violence. The splatter makes sense since Aces 'n Eights pays homage to the Spaghetti Western all the way up to putting its lead gunslinger in a Mexican shawl for the last shootout. The film is pretty predictable during the course of its 90 minutes, but if you're a fan of the genre then it can be considered a "loving tribute" to the type of movies they don't make anymore. All Aces 'n Eights strives to be is a satisfying western, and in that respect, it accomplishes what it sets out to do.
For a television movie they've gotten together a good cast often seen on the big screen in "B movies," and at least one legend of the genre. Casper Van Dien makes for a believable hero as gunslinger Johnny Rivers. He speaks in his interview (in the extras on the DVD) about how much he admired John Wayne, but his performance is more reminiscent of Clint Eastwood when he was portraying "the man with no name." He's all clenched-jaw intensity and calm steady ferocity in a confrontation. Ernest Borgnine provides his iconic presence as the owner of the ranch, and for 90 years old, the actor has a ton of spunk left in him. Bruce Boxleitner (Babylon 5) gets a juicy role as one of the bad guys who has a change of heart by the time the climactic battle rolls around. Jack Noseworthy (Barb Wire) does a good job as the railroad executive from Chicago who has a need to bring a halt to all the violence. The acting ensemble makes this one worth checking out.
The DVD from Genius Products sports a nice widescreen transfer as well as a solid stereo soundtrack. Framing seems strange at times, but perhaps that comes about as a stylistic decision to recreate the off-kilter angles of the Italian westerns it is copying. The resolution is clear enough that you can see the swarming flies, sweat on the actors, and Borgnine's abundant wrinkles. It all looks nice and clear, although the colors are bleached out to provide the right atmosphere. There are three extra clips that include an interview with Borgnine and one with Van Dien. The older actor comes off sharp and happy to be there, while the younger man is star struck and sheepishly goofy about working with Ernest. A third segment shows the crew presenting Ernest Borgnine with the guns he carried in The Wild Bunch, and it's just a quick ceremony between takes on the set. It's nice to hear from the two leads, but that's about all we get to learn more about the project. The cover art is impressive and gives you a sense of what's in the DVD.
Aces N' Eights doesn't reinvent the genre trappings, and perhaps it
adheres too strictly to the moments we've come to expect from one of these Wild
West operas. The most surprising aspect is the film shows the viewer a great
deal of visceral violence as we witness innocent ranchers being killed for
holding out against the railroad. Perhaps the moral of this story is modern
storytelling is more prone to bloodshed, and the future of the western lies in
its ability to adapt to our modern sensibilities. It feels like an update thanks
to the quick edits, the ever present musical score, and the perfect sets of
teeth often on display from the all-too-pretty actors. But then there's Ernest
Borgnine in the midst of everything to rope us back in to the flavor of the old
westerns we've all loved for many years. In the end, Aces 'n Eights is
simply a good time for western fans, and for a cable movie does a nice job.
Sometimes a cliché is reassuring rather than annoying, and you have to
smile at a film so willing to embrace that idea. Don't expect the film to
surpass any cinematic offerings, but for the small screen it does an
entertaining job. If you're a fan of the Spaghetti Western, then here's a modern
one for you.
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