Nobody escapes from Judge Mitchell Hattaway, especially with a dirty, grainy film transfer.
Nobody escapes from Marshal Bill Speakes.
Marshal Bill Speakes (Sam Elliott, Tombstone) is transporting Sarah O'Rourke (Linda Fiorentino, Where the Money Is) to her date with the hangman's noose. When their stagecoach is ambushed by bandits, both find themselves double-crossed by Jack Cooper (Craig Sheffer, Fire in the Sky), a con man who was riding with them. In an attempt to recover the money he stole from the stagecoach, Sarah, who had planned to take the money for herself, hunts down Cooper. They become allies after Speakes organizes a posse to track them down. The men riding with the marshal want a share of the $2,500 bounty offered for the fugitives' heads; Speakes just wants them dead (there is a very specific, to say nothing of personal, reason behind his quest for what he sees as justice).
The Desperate Trail is a tough, lean, tight little film. Although apparently intended for a theatrical release, it debuted on TNT in July 1995. I watched it then and was quite surprised by what I saw, and I mean that in a good way. (That original broadcast must have been a slightly edited cut; I don't remember it being quite so violent, and there's some language and nudity in the DVD cut that wouldn't have made it onto basic cable.) The film is well-written, acted, and directed; it doesn't expand the boundaries of the genre, but it's consistently interesting and entertaining, with a couple of nice twists.
What isn't so good is the treatment the film has been given for its DVD release. The transfer is soft, dirty, grainy, and the source elements were obviously plagued by specks and scratches. On top of that, the film is presented in full frame; given that the intended aspect ratio was 1.85:1, you'd think Warner Brothers would have opted for an anamorphic transfer, which would have been more appropriate than the cropped job we have here. (There are a number of times when shot compositions are off, as some of the edge-of-the-frame is unclear.) I'd rate the Dolby Surround track (mislabeled as a mono track on the packaging) slightly higher than the video side, but it also has its share of problems; there's some very good surround action, but the dialogue isn't well integrated, and the track sounds very flat and weak during the first third of the film (thankfully, it has greatly improved by the time the climactic gunfight rolls around). There are no extras, but that's not surprising.
The Desperate Trail is a good film, but the lackluster treatment it receives here makes this release unworthy of purchase. The presentation here is on par with what you'd experience on television, and that just won't cut it. Hey, it's a Western starring Sam Elliott, which in itself says pretty much all you need to know.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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