Judge David Johnson once defended a sleepy Texas town from a group of bloodthirsty marauders. And you're just going to have to take his word for it.
"Sorry don't get it done, Dude. That's the second time you hit me. Don't
ever do it again."
Howard Hawks' iconic Western is bequeathed the high-def treatment, and it can be safely said that Dean Martin's unshaved face has never looked better.
Facts of the Case
In the small Texas town of Rio Bravo, law and order is maintained by three unlikely enforcers: Chance (John Wayne, The Green Berets), the strong, hard-boiled sheriff, Dude (Dean Martin), the one-time quick draw now constantly drunk and disheveled, and Stumpy (Walter Brennan), the crippled, wisecracking codger whose primary task is to hang around the jail with a cocked shotgun.
The trio immediately embroiled themselves in a world of trouble when they arrested and incarcerated Joe Burdette for murder. Joe is the brother of Nathan Burdette (John Russell), a corrupt and wealthy landowner who will use his entire repertoire of dirty tricks to spring his brother from prison. Faced with an onslaught of guns for hire, Chance enlists the help or a young hotshot gunslinger named Colorado (Ricky Nelson). At the same time he'll do what he can to avoid being distracted by the lovely Feathers (Angie Dickinson), a strange woman with a shady past who's been making some serious googly-eyes at the sheriff. Gunplay, explosions, extended musical numbers and burly trash talk ensues.
I've wanted to watch Rio Bravo for some time. I'll confess that I'm not a huge Western fan, but I've heard from multiple people that even a casual fan of hombres blasting old-school caps in each other's old-school asses like myself would enjoy Rio Bravo. And what better way to check it out than on HD DVD? So I grilled up some sirloin tips, poured a tall, frothy glass of Tropicana pink lemonade and settled in for two hours and 20 minutes of macho tobacco spitting and Old West trash-talking.
I wasn't disappointed Now, I know plenty of smarter people than me have written smarter treatises on this film than I am capable of, but take this, coming from a casual Western viewer and a fan of escapist theatrical entertainment: Rio Bravo is great fun, witty, engaging and occasionally bad-ass. With the Wayne-Martin-Nelson-Brennan lineup, Hawks has given us a tight-knit quartet of quirky, flawed gunslingers, who are hugely likable. From the noteworthy dialogue-free opening to the final slug thrown into the bad guys, the four men tasked with protecting Rio Bravo against overwhelming odds will ingratiate themselves over the course of the, er, robust runtime. The Duke and his cohorts form a realistic brotherhood, and Hawks gives each of them and endless supply of quote-worthy lines. Really, this cast makes the film, and their on-screen chemistry drives the plot forward.
Just look at this rogues gallery: Chance is the obvious patriarch of the film, a tough but fair leader who preaches self-reliance and individualism (half-in-the-bag Dude is far from coddled), a guy who's had enough life experience to know how the world really works, though the aggressive pursuits of a sexually-charged (censors be damned!) girl confounds him. Dude still has some skills, but they've eroded over the course of his alcoholism, a vice that is displayed as debilitating and seductive in the film, and Martin really sells the withdrawal. Nelson's Colorado is a wise-beyond-his-years young gun that almost immediately forms a father-son relationship with Chance and manages to overcome the odd Tiger Beat guitar solo and present himself as a stone-cold killer by the end of the film; and Stumpy, well, he's exactly what you'd expect from a near-senile, crotchety old fart, and rounds out the crew perfectly. And say what you want about the ickiness of the Chance/Feather romance, but it didn't bother me. Seriously, he's John Wayne! And she's Angie Dickinson in leggings! Human nature, baby.
The one gripe I can toss out there is the overlong runtime. Two hours and 20 minutes will get you some nifty character development, sure, but the sauntering pace of what is essentially a shoot'em up prevented the film from really moving. The gunfights were well-staged, highlighted by the climactic showdown at the Burdette ranch, but were sandwiched between a bit too much lollygagging for my taste.
Let's talk about the high-def treatment. Encoded in VC-1, the 1080p 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer (viewed here in 1080i) the picture looks beautiful. Colors leap out of the screen and the arid landscape of Rio Bravo is rich with golden earth tones. When contrasted with the lush blue hues of the sky, those outdoor sequences are even more striking. And it's the little stuff that stands just as much. Take the very first scene, when Dude stumbles into the bar, and note the patron with the bright yellow shirt and you tell me if that could be replicated on standard DVD. Unfortunately, I did notice a brief, but significant drop in quality during the film's transitions. These spots are quick, but noticeable and prevent me from over-gushing on the transfer. For sound, the Dolby Digital Plus 1.0 mono fails to provide a rich soundscape, with the center channel responsible for the brunt of the audio heavy-lifting.
A good set of extras accompany, thought there are no high-def specific offerings. The commentary by John Carpenter and Richard Schickel is pretty much a two-hour love-letter, and two slickly-produced featurettes bring in other critics and directors and even Angie Dickinson to share the love. "Commemoration: Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo" is an overview retrospective and "Old Tucson: Where the Legends Walked" focuses on the film's real-world Arizona setting. These are buttressed by a "The Men Who Made the Movies: Howard Hawks" career profile. Trailers for John Wayne Westerns round out the batch.
Well-written, well-acted, lots of fun and dripping with hard-nosed masculinity, Rio Bravo is a good time all around, even if that time moseys a bit too much…
Not guilty. Pardner.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary with John Carpenter and Richard Schickel
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