Our review of Bad Company, published November 26th, 2002, is also available.
"My plans have changed somewhat. I have fallen in with some rough types, but it seems to be the only way to get to the West, where I can find my fortune and make my parents proud. I resolve never to do a dishonest act, nor take part in any thieving, robbing or false undertaking. I will always keep to the straight and narrow. So help me God."—Drew Dixon, September 30, 1863.
"Do not be misled: 'Bad company corrupts good character.'"—Paul the Apostle, circa A.D. 56.
Facts of the Case
Drew Dixon (Barry Brown, later Cybill Shepherd's paramour in Daisy Miller) springs from a pious Ohio Methodist family. As the film opens, he's springing hastily westward to escape conscription into the Union army. Drew arrives on the Missouri frontier a fish out of water: a thoughtful, polite, intellectual young man in an environment where the rule of the gun and survival of the fittest are the order of the day.
After a couple of scuffles with a brash punk named Jake Rumsey (Jeff Bridges, in the days when he was still best known as the son of the guy from Sea Hunt), Drew throws in his lot with Jake's crew, a ragtag collection of runaways and would-be desperadoes that includes the cowardly Simms (Jerry Houser, Oscy from Summer of '42 and its sequel, Class of '44), snake-in-the-grass Loney (John Savage, three decades ahead of his turn as Col. Lydecker on TV's Dark Angel), and eleven-year-old Artful Dodger clone Boog (Joshua Hill Lewis). It doesn't take Drew long to ingratiate himself with the delinquents—he's smarter than all of them together, and he makes his bones with the gang by means of a clever ruse—and join them on the long trail West. Drew hopes to land in Virginia City, Nevada, where he'll become a Samuel Clemens-in-waiting among the silver miners and avoid the long arm of the draft. Jake and the others just hope to land somewhere, and their prospects aren't so bright.
This hole-in-the-head gang struggles to find its footing as a sort of junior-grade James Brothers. But they lack survival skills: they kill a rabbit, but none of them knows how to clean and dress it. They lack criminal skills: an attempt to rob an solitary farmer ends with the boys bartering one of their already-scarce weapons for a meal of sow belly and turnip greens, which they gobble while peering down both barrels of the old geezer's shotgun. They lack fighting skills: what little booty they've collected is snatched from them by a more mature band of real thugs. They lack social skills, too, though they manage to sate their adolescent hormones via an eight-dollar tumble with the too-willing wife of a passing opportunist.
Over time, the crew unravels. One deserts the gang in the middle of an abortive stagecoach heist. Another is killed stealing a pie from a seemingly innocuous windowsill. Others prove to be turncoats. In the end, it comes down to good-hearted Drew and his "bad company," Jake. Will their running afoul of a grim-visaged lawman (Jim Davis, Jock Ewing from Dallas) mean the end of their alliance…the end of their lives…or merely the end of what remains of their innocence?
Bad Company plays on a couple of levels. On the one hand, it's a coming-of-age story set against the background of the Civil War-era American West. Barry Brown (who worked for such varied directors as Andy Warhol and Peter Bogdanovich in his suicide-shortened career) portrays Drew as a principled young man striving doggedly to cling to those principles. Jeff Bridges's Jake is "good bad but not evil," a kid who, despite his conscious choice of a career path of minor-league crime, might have turned out very differently with a shove in the right direction. Neither Drew nor Jake nor their traveling companions are yet men, or even anything close to manhood, but we see them doing what teenaged boys often do: adopting behaviors that comport with their immature sense of what masculinity is because they don't yet comprehend what being a man truly means.
But at another level, Benton and co-writer David Newman are weaving a parable about how "bad company" really does corrupt good character. The Drew we meet at the beginning of the film—studious, religious, self-effacing, well-mannered—could never have imagined himself committing the acts to which he will slowly stoop as the story winds along. Indeed, that naïve Twain-wannabe would have stolidly denied that he would under any circumstances lie, steal, rob or kill. Witness the vow he makes when first hooking up with Jake and the boys: "I will always keep to the straight and narrow." But by "falling in with some rough types," Drew unknowingly condemns himself to inexorably becoming one of those "rough types." He finds himself like a frog being stewed into soup over a slow, simmering heat: had the water been boiling when he stepped in, he'd have leaped out, but he finds the company of Jake and the others just hot enough to be comfortable, even exciting.
The meandering pace with which Benton unfolds his narrative reinforces the lesson. He doesn't hurl Drew into the pit of despair all at once; he lowers the boy in a few inches at a time. For this reason, an audience weaned on high-voltage action fare might find Bad Company tedious going. But Benton draws us along on this little journey so casually that, when the outcome is revealed—more or less—in the final scene, we are at first perhaps surprised, then compelled to acknowledge that the director has simply taken his characters (and us) where the turn of events inevitably must lead.
Bad Company works not only because of (and to a degree in spite of) Benton's seductive and leisurely pacing, but ultimately on the strength of his youthful actors. Brown and Bridges, though diametrically opposite types, give us undeveloped men we can embrace even as we cluck our tongues at their misdeeds. The supporting roles, mostly portrayed by then-unknown talent, are equally well done. Again, we don't sense that any of these kids are satanic, simply directionless. Their common experiences play out in a monochromatic earthtone flatland lovingly photographed by acclaimed cinematographer Gordon Willis, who brought the same naturalistic eye to The Godfather and its sequels, and to an octet of Woody Allen films in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Floating along like a raft on the mighty Mizzou is the plain, haunting piano score by Harvey Schmidt, half the writing team behind the long-running Broadway musical The Fantasticks.
Paramount's naked DVD offering of Bad Company starts and ends with a serviceable anamorphic transfer. The source print appears to have been relatively clean and defect-free, and the transfer doesn't add any noise to the visual presentation. Contrasts are a real problem, though; the film looks soft, shallow and ill-defined throughout. The mono soundtrack sounds like it was recorded in someone's cousin's garage utilizing coffee cans and baling wire—I know it's mono, but would it have cost that much to warm it up a bit in the production studio? And of course, because this disc hails from Paramount—where "DVD" stands for "Definitely Value Deficient"—you wouldn't even think you were going to find any supplemental content here. And you won't. Never let it be said that Paramount fails to live up to your expectations, DVD fan.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Not only does Paramount lavish its usual skimpier-than-Victoria's-Secret feature-retarded treatment on this disc, but they've targeted it for one of the sneakiest and most cynical marketing ploys imaginable. The Studio on Snowy Mountain is releasing Bad Company on DVD at this particular moment in home entertainment history for no better reason than to capitalize on the publicity Touchstone Pictures is unleashing for its latest big-budget action flick, coincidentally likewise entitled Bad Company. Paramount apparently believes the DVD-buying public is stupid enough to purchase a 30-year-old Western thinking it's a modern comedy/thriller starring Anthony Hopkins and Chris Rock. I guess the keep case cover shot of Bridges and Brown could be mistaken for Dr. Lecter and Rufus from Dogma. If you've spent a long weekend sucking on a crack pipe, maybe.
To show how pervasive the industry's disrespect for your intelligence is, Paramount's not alone in trying to milk a few extra DVD sales out of this scam. At this same time—how'd that happen?—BMG is releasing a concert disc featuring aging '70s arena-rockers Bad Company. According to legend, the band chose its name in memoriam of Robert Benton's angry-young-men saga. If Paul Rodgers and his mates had known the rip-off that would be perpetrated by Paramount three decades later, they'd have probably called themselves A Fistful of Dollars instead.
Worth seeing, as one of the so-called revisionist "anti-Westerns" that sprouted in the wake of the "spaghetti Western" wave of the 1960s. I'm not sure it's quite the forgotten classic some critics have made it out to be, but it's thoughtful and sensitive—even touchingly humorous—in a way that few films made these days would even attempt. Good rainy-afternoon fare, but I'll warn you up front: if your idea of a Western is Tombstone or The Quick and the Dead, this may fail your wristwatch test.
Bad Company is acquitted on all charges. Paramount is condemned to be strung up with a rope necktie for yet another embarrassingly lackluster DVD release, after being horsewhipped at sunrise for coat-tailing another film by the same name. Court stands in recess.
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