Three brothers torn apart by love…drawn together by war.
Welcome to Johnson County, where the men are men, the cattle are stolen, and the Western formula lives on! A workmanlike effort loosely based on an actual slice of history, Johnson County War is perhaps better as the television mini-series it once was than the DVD it now is.
Facts of the Case
The newly formed state of Wyoming has troubles. Small ranchers are being harassed by massively wealthy cattle barons, led by English expatriate Lord Peter (Christopher Cazenove), who desire no impediment to their insatiable desire for money. Cain Hammett (Tom Berenger), eldest of the Hammett brothers, barely saves cattle rustling little brother Harry (Luke Perry) from the cattle barons' wrath, but is reluctant to be drawn into the simmering conflict. Brother Dale's (Adam Storke) wife and old flame Rory (Michelle Forbes) vehemently urges Cain to join the undeclared war, but Cain is resolute.
The situation turns increasingly grim. Working through minions such as ranch foreman Jesse Jacklin (Jack Conley) and the murderous Marshal Hunt Lawton (Burt Reynolds), the cattle barons use all means necessary to force the small ranchers and homesteaders off their land. With hired hands and Texas mercenaries, the cattlemen aim to seize Johnson County and run it as their own private fiefdom. Until, that is, they make Cain mad. That's when they have a real fight on their hands.
Strong, beloved older brother? Yup.
Younger, hotheaded brother? Yup.
"Red-shirt" ready for killin'? Yup.
Attractive, unattainable love of our hero's life? Yup.
Gorgeous whore with a heart of gold? Yup.
Dastardly gunman so oily he could rival OPEC? Yup.
Evil, rich men scheming to crush our hero? Yup.
Cattle, horses, gunplay, explosions, sex? Yup.
Looks like we got a prime head of Western!
Coming from the pen of Larry McMurtry (Terms of Endearment, Lonesome Dove, Streets of Laredo), and Diana Ossana, whose credits are nearly unanimously devoted to the genre, you would rightfully expect a certain level of competence from Johnson County War. In that respect, Johnson County War does not disappoint. The good-guy cowboy brothers are solid, determined men of resourcefulness and independence, yet with a tender heart for the ladies, the Western vistas are ruggedly beautiful, and the titanic struggle between the little guys and the evil, soulless cattle barons leads to plenty of action.
On the unbuttered side of the bread, neither does Johnson County War unfold in an unexpected fashion, nor, as you check off the elements noted above, is this an original recipe from stuntman/actor turned director David S. Cass Sr. A familiar dusty trail is not such a bad way to pass the time, but that's not a resounding endorsement if you are looking for something to stand out amongst the crowded shelves of your local DVD emporium. However, if a straight-forward, no-frills western is to your tastes, then you will get your fill in Johnson County War.
A crucial ingredient that helps Johnson County War from cookie-cutter mediocrity are the twin lead actors. Tom Berenger (Platoon, Major League, Gettysburg) is not the most wide-ranging and expressive of actors, but he does possess an impressive, rugged presence that quite suits him for a role as a typical Western hero. Before you hear him speak, you know he fits the part, and fit it well. As Berenger's chief nemesis, Burt Reynolds (The Longest Yard, Smokey and the Bandit, Mystery, Alaska) forsakes a more complex performance for the sheer pleasure of reveling in the oily evil of Marshal Hunt Lawton. Reynolds carries himself with style and snaps off his quips with glee so well that you long for his comeuppance.
Though credits are determined without much regard to the underlying work, still it is a shame that Rachel Ward is featured so prominently yet Michelle Forbes is not. Mind you, Rachel Ward has the looks and saucy swagger to make a fine looking tart (at 45, no less), but the role hardly demands that she stretch her acting muscles. On the other hand, the archly beautiful Michelle Forbes (Swimming With Sharks, Homicide: Life on the Street, Star Trek: The Next Generation) is a match for the solid Tom Berenger, acquitting herself well with her strength of drama and emotion.
The video superbly features the naturally stunning vistas of Calgary, standing in for nearby Wyoming. Clean, blip and fleck free pictures, well saturated colors, and a dash of light grain with a splash of digital edge enhancement make for a satisfactory overall presentation. The audio is a standard Dolby Surround mix, with some action across the front speakers but little for the surrounds or subwoofer. Nothing spectacular, for good or for ill.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Luke Perry (Beverly Hills, 90210, Oz, Jeremiah) comes off as a less than convincing lightweight, particularly in the contrasting shadow of solid leading man Tom Berenger. Whether he's emoting anger, fear or love, none of it packs a punch or sparks a chemistry with his colleagues. For Perry, Johnson County War is a forgettable blip on his resume.
The extra content makes for meager trail rations. Twenty-odd pictures in a photo gallery (beware of spoilers!) and a five-minute PR fluff "behind the scenes" featurette are hardly worth mentioning. Hey, Artisan/Hallmark, why not just skip the content next time and knock $5 off the price?
Making matters worse is the total absence of subtitles. I'm still shocked when I see a disc without even this smallest of features. What did the suits save, a nickel a disc? Miserly bastards! It doesn't help that the box lists a trailer gallery, but none is to be found on the disc. Cheap and deceitful, boy, this is getting to be a hell of a DVD presentation!
Casual fans of the genre should devote their attention to more worthy films, but if you are a devoted aficionado of everything Western, you'll find plenty to appreciate here. Though the extended length is a drawback, Johnson County War is still a better than average rental possibility and priced to sell ($20 list).
We will start with a fair trial, and then have ourselves a first class hanging!
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