Judge Bill Treadway ropes himself a rodeo movie, and he's working without a clown!
For J.W. Coop, second place is the same as last.
Cliff Robertson's 1972 Western has been done a major disservice by Columbia on DVD. Do not let my rather low judgment of 60 cloud your mind: J.W. Coop is a four-star masterpiece and is among the very best films of 1972. However, this disc is saddled with video and audio of a quality that most public domain releases wouldn't stoop to.
Robertson cowrote, produced, and directed the film, in which he stars as J.W. Coop, a onetime rodeo star who was sentenced to a ten-year prison term for a fight that got out of control. Having been released after serving nine years of his term, Coop is determined to stage a comeback on the rodeo circuit. After a shaky start in his hometown, Coop goes on the road, hitchhiking his way from contest to contest. During his journey, he finds love with Bean (Cristina Ferrare, The Impossible Years), a free spirit who accompanies Coop on the circuit. He also manages to find his groove, launching himself all the way to second place. But to Coop, second place is not good enough, and he lets nothing get in the way of his journey to the top.
I stated earlier that J.W. Coop is a four-star masterpiece, and I stand by that statement. The film is a well-acted and -crafted character study that keeps the viewer engrossed throughout. Admittedly, the plot is rather thin and is similar in theme to Sam Peckinpah's excellent Junior Bonner, released the same year. However, Peckinpah's film is a sweeter, gentler comedy, while Robertson's film is more emotional and cerebral. Also, Robertson isn't as concerned with plot; he is far more interested in the background and the people who populate it than Peckinpah was. Rarely have I seen a film in which every character is memorable and easily identifiable by the viewer. Robertson lets us get to know these people enough that we become comfortable.
The rodeo sequences are first-rate. Robertson realizes that a rodeo drama isn't any good if it doesn't give the audience the real thing, and never before has a viewer gotten so close to an actual rodeo event. The bull-riding set pieces are so vividly staged and photographed that we feel as if the dust is clogging our nasal passages.
As is often the case when an actor directs, the performances are rich and vibrant. Robertson figures out the winning formula for an actor-director: He appears in enough scenes to make him the legitimate lead but in a role small enough to allow him to concentrate on directing. His performance in J.W. Coop is one of his very best. He doesn't give himself loads of dialogue, instead choosing to use emotions and gestures to suggest qualities in the character. Despite her prominent billing, Geraldine Page's performance amounts to little more than a cameo. Notwithstanding the brevity of her screen time, she still manages to deliver the goods as Coop's nutty mother. More impressive is Cristina Ferrare, who plays Coop's lover Bean. Never before has she been this impressive in a picture. Then again, she never had first-rate material to work with before. If only she had done more films like this, she wouldn't be shilling jewelry on the Home Shopping Network.
Columbia presents J.W. Coop in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. This transfer is absolutely horrific. There has been no restoration or cleanup effort performed for the disc. Grain is plentiful, and the picture is sometimes foggy during certain scenes. Imperfections are bountiful, especially scratches, reel marks, and odd colored specks. Colors are rather subdued, but I am unsure whether this was Robertson's intended palette or a genuine defect of the film elements used to make the transfer. All I know is that J.W. Coop doesn't look any better on disc than it did on VHS, and that is a shame.
Audio is a simple Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. My player identified the sound mix as Dolby Digital 2.0 surround. It didn't sound like stereo to me, so I'll go with mono. The sound is rather tinny and harsh throughout. Dialogue is audible enough, but you'll need the closed captioning option as a backup. Hiss is present throughout the quieter scenes of the picture. The music isn't as clear and clean as it should be either.
Not a single extra appears on the disc. Cliff Robertson is still an active member of the film community, so why not contact him and record a commentary track, especially since this film was a labor of love for him? He's been more than willing to discuss his work for DVD, most recently in a retrospective interview for Obsession (a Columbia release, no less). Also, a retrospective documentary would have been great to have since most of the cast and crew are still alive.
The poor video and audio elements would have benefited from a major restoration effort. The lack of extras when many of the participants are still alive is another slap against this fine film. Still, despite these considerable negatives, I am recommending J.W. Coop as a rental. The film itself is a well-acted, well-rounded character study that only improves upon each viewing. The film rarely airs on television any more, and most rental outlets are shunning VHS, so this DVD is the best opportunity to see the film.
Columbia is found guilty of giving short shrift to one of the finest films in their vaults. I urge them to revisit J.W. Coop some time in the future in a fully restored version with the participation of Robertson himself.
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