Judge Ike Oden is pursuing an outlaw gang that still hasn't returned his copy of Predator 2 and there's hell to pay.
"And now you understand. Anything goes wrong, anything at all…your fault, my fault, nobody's fault…it won't matter. I'm gonna blow your head off. No matter what else happens, no matter who gets killed, I'm gonna blow your head off."
When I think of John Wayne movies, I typically divide them up into a few categories. There are the quickie, poverty row westerns he headlined for Republic Pictures following a disastrous debut in Raoul Walsh's Big Trail. There are his collaborations with directors like John Ford (Stagecoach, The Searchers, etc.) and Howard Hawks (Rio Bravo, Red River, etc.). There are his war films. Then there are his plain old, solid as oak Westerns.
With the exception of stuff like True Grit and The Shootist, which offer some of his greatest performances ever filmed, a lot of these get blurred in my head. Sure, I can tell you plot the differences between a Sons of Katie Elder and a McLintock!, but tonally and without a legendary director behind the camera, these John Wayne westerns offer a lot of overlap as light, matinee fodder. Most of it ranges from good to great, fun films that want nothing more to entertain with simple stories, rip roaring action, and the Duke's charismatic bravado.
The Big Jake wants to be one of these films, yet its starkly realistic violence (for a John Wayne film anyway) makes it a film difficult to define in the Duke's resume. Arriving on bare bones Blu-ray, the film tries too hard to be too many things but always entertains.
Facts of the Case
When the McCandle ranch is ransacked and overran by John Fain (Richard Boone, The Shootist) and his gang of outlaws, matriarch Martha (Maureen O'hara, The Quiet Man) finds herself facing the kidnapping and million dollar ransom of her grandson. Hesitantly, she enlists the help of her estranged husband, "Big" Jake McCandle (Wayne), an aging frontiersman with a knack for survival. He teams up with his estranged sons, hothead James (Patrick Wayne, MckLintock!) and gearhead Michael (Christopher Mitchum, Rio Lobo) to retrieve the boy and get some much-needed payback.
Big Jake can't make up its mind. It wants to be a melancholy meditation on violence, ala Sam Peckinpah's Wild Bunch, while still being an old school, feel good western, ala Sons of Katie Elder. The film is one of the few on the Duke's resume to garner a PG-13 rating thanks to its copious amounts of bloody bullet wounds and mean-spirited violence. Big Jake has kids murdered, a Native American scout hacked to death with a machete (off screen, though somehow the implication is worse than actually seeing it), an outlaw stabbed in the face with a pitchfork, another set on fire…I could go on and on. With this sort of hard violence comes a lack of innocence we're used to in Wayne's classic Westerns. Sure, people were shot and died, too often the wrong sort of people (bystanders, partners, brothers, etc.), but Big Jake takes violence into gratuitous territory.
Big Jake wants to keep up with modern Westerns emerging around the time, the aforementioned Wild Bunch, Leone's spat of Spaghetti Westerns, etc. However, unlike these ultra-stylized, often nihilistic films, the movie's old fashioned and frothy script makes the violence feel weird and inconsistent. The opening assault (by a gang of murderous outlaws that would make a great Peckinpah cast) establishes a fairly realistic tone to the film. This is undermined 45 minutes later when Chris Mitchum gets his own Evel Knievel-inspired motorcycle stunt show in the middle of a six-shooter bloodbath. He doesn't dismount his motorcycle to sniper the outlaws who are murdering Texas Rangers, instead riding his motorcycle into the hail of gunfire to inexplicably knock them over. In the history of John Wayne gunfights, this is one of the lamest.
The Duke seems to be painfully aware of this fact. While he shares good scenes with a low-key Richard Boone, he seems a little lost here. He's starting to show his age and his battle with cancer seems fully apparent, his vocal inflection sometimes wobbly. Big Jake spends more time bickering with sons Mitchum and (real-life son) Patrick Wayne and than he does taking out bad guys. All three are a bit wooden together, but the presence of Bruce Cabot as their badass Indian Scout livens things up a bit. Maureen O'Hara is barely in the film, her role is a glorified cameo at best.
These criticisms aside, the film is very entertaining. It's a minor John Wayne western at best, but it's still a John Wayne western, one with a lot of inventive plot twists, snappy one-liners, and exquisite Technicolor cinematography. In terms of set pieces, the movie has a lot to make up for with that Chris Mitchum nonsense I mentioned earlier. It does, thankfully. The group's excursion into a mining town makes for a great set-up and punch line to that old "If you go looking for trouble…" adage and the closing gunfight between the outlaws and our heroes stand among the most inventive of the Duke's career. Yes, it's brutally executed, but it's also gracefully staged and nearly justifies its harshness. Nearly.
Paramount's Blu-ray is a respectable effort that's sorely missing in the extras department. The mostly impressive 1080p transfer boasts big, bold colors and fairly deep blacks. Some shots, especially stock footage, looks blurry, scratchy, and downright ugly, but these are fairly scarce and can probably be attributed to the film's age and source material. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio sounds very clear, displaying an impressive musical score and some sharp gunshot effects. No extras are included, which is a massive waste.
Big Jake wants to be a hard, violent film about hard, violent men, but too often succumbs to the goofiness of Old Hollywood. Intermingling spattery bloodshed with over-the-top comedy and frontier nostalgia just doesn't work, especially in a John Wayne film. The Searchers and Red River questioned the violence, retribution, and racism of the west without resorting to the cheap gimmick of theatre blood and nihilism. Big Jake wants to stand with these films, but it's just too damned goofy for its own good. At best, it's an entertaining if somewhat bewildering diversion for a rainy afternoon. Big Jake's a worthy Blu-ray purchase for fans of Wayne and classic westerns.
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