One stale sagebrush saga
Quentin Leach arrives in Rio Backlotto carrying a corpse and a criminal. He's looking for the sheriff so he can collect the bounty on his two penal prizes. While in town, he witnesses a bank robbery by the Walker Brothers gang. During the holdup, they disrupt a wedding and the new bride of Benjamin Tabor is taken hostage. A posse searches for her, but all they can find is her wedding veil in the river. Tabor, thinking she is dead, rides out after her killers. After several days, his horse collapses and he is left in the arid, dry desert to die. Leach saves him and together they form an uneasy alliance and go out after the Walkers. The bad men are apparently taking Maria to Mexico to sell her into white slavery. As Leach and Tabor get ever closer, several members of the gang head to Madame Pepper's brothel for a little recreational relaxation. After searching for clues, the vigilantes eventually meet the marauders there. But Pepper has a rule: no guns or fighting in her little alcove of amore. A confrontation between Tabor and a Walker flunky leads him to the discovery that his left-for-dead bride is actually alive. Spurred on by this news, he and Leach head out to ambush the criminals. But there may be another shadowy figure in the background, someone wanting to challenge Leach and his rights to the bounty. It all leads to a final confrontation above the mighty waters of the Rio Grande, a battle of wits and wills to see who gets justice and who gets the rewards.
Hoping to hop on the bandwagon started with the 1992 revisionist western Unforgiven, Rio Diablo wishes to be a moody dissertation on the difference, be it ever so slight, between collecting bounty and vigilante retribution. It wants to compare the vastness and desolation of the Texas-Mexico border with the cold and calculating villains and anti-heroes. But no matter how hard it tries, it is still steeped in a great too many of the standard formula facets of the traditional oater. In turn, this twists Rio Diablo back into a far too familiar and outdated statement about the value of life and the tarnishing of the soul. This Grand Ole Opry goes gunslinger is not helped a great deal by the casting. Kenny Rogers may know how to play NASCAR (Six-Pack) or poker (far too many of those Gambler movies). Heck, he may even know how to roast a succulent, spicy chicken. But the fact remains that he is nothing more than a façade with facial hair as the bounty hunter Quentin Leech. Any three-dimension creating backstory is completely hidden and suggested in such a subtle matter that it won't even register with the audience (we even forget that he has a "telltale" music box when it reemerges in the finale). Travis Tritt, proving that the notorious mullet hairdo was alive and well in the 1870s, is all grimacing and teeth gritting as Ben Tabor. He is far more believable dressed in sequins and singing about how the whiskey ain't workin'. As the women in their respective lives, Naomi Judd is like an early cigar store mannequin of poor acting and even worse facial carving, while Laura "Mulholland Dr." Hanning has absolutely nothing to do but look victimized. If it weren't for the usual sidewinder suspects rooting and tooting up the place with guns ablaze and teeth afouled, we'd have very little in the way of dramatic intrigue to worry about.
Part of the problem with Rio Diablo is the same ole story it wants to tell. It starts out with a bang, but after the initial fireworks, it can't seem to raise its level above a snivel. From The Searchers to Rio Lobo, the plotline of the stolen sweetheart or vow of vengeance is a tired old cowpoke of a convention. Rio Diablo does nothing new or interesting with it except to offer some of country music's most mundane recording artists as the personas dramatis. True, Rogers and Tritt may almost look the part, but they are completely out of their emotional range when it comes to offering smoldering rage or cold-blooded killing skills. Director Rod Hardy, a journeyman filmmaker responsible for everything from episodes of The X-Files and JAG to oddball films like Thirst, does understand the Western genre. He would go on to helm the television movies Buffalo Girls and the 2000 remake of High Noon. Here, he lets the atmosphere of the barren wasteland and semi-dry riverbeds say more for his narrative than the characters themselves. But there are times, like the obviously faked matte painting set for Judd's odd Pepperland bordello, where even the scenery destabilizes him. It's not that Rio Diablo is boring or bad, it's just too professionally planned and played out to make much of a meaningful mark. There is no fire or passion in this movie, no unpredictable wickedness from the bad men or secret shame for the good guys. It's just a typical black hat vs. white hat story set into motion and allowed to mosey along until it reaches its conclusion. Rio Diablo may translate roughly as "the Devil's river," but the only thing evil about this movie is its desire to let Naomi Judd give Kenny Rogers a semi-nude sponge bath. Eep!
Artisan provides a tumbleweed-less ghost town of a DVD release for this title. We do get a full screen transfer that keeps many of the moody aspects of the print intact, but this disc does occasionally suffer from a strange foggy softness that seems to be present only in the twilight and night scenes. It's not compression so much as perhaps some incredibly mixed up contrast levels. There are a couple of moments that can't be seen at all. Still, the movie overall looks pretty good. On the sound side, the Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround gives us the typical channel changing gunfire and occasional atmospheric touches. But there is nothing on the aural side of the showcase to get excited over. And that's it. No trailers or bonus filmographies. No attempt to explain how or why this movie was made—just a partially presentable picture with a viable sonic offering. But perhaps, for once, Artisan cannot be faulted for leaving the added features in the brainstorming session. It's hard to imagine that there would be anything viable one can add about Rio Diablo to make it compelling.
This is a serviceable Western hampered by the unchanged story aspects of a thousand horse operas and some peculiar and unnecessary stunt casting. Everyone may have considered Kenny (or at least one of his song's characters) the coward of the county. And Lucille probably did pick a fine time to leave him (along with Ruby, who also took her love to town). But Rio Diablo is one time when the Gambler completely forgot when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em and instead, bet it all on one tired, trite tale. So is it any surprise that he and his film end up busted?
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