Judge Clark Douglas reckons that if you just say what you see when reviewing these newfangled shiny movie circles, you're bound to get some harmonious results.
Three adventures…one mustache.
"Why westerns get segregated into a genre in Hollywood, I don't know…It's just good entertainment."—Tom Selleck
Facts of the Case
Rafe Covington (Tom Selleck, Magnum, P.I.) is a man of his word. He promises a dying friend that he will do certain things, and by golly, he's going to do them. First, Rafe is going to take care of his friend's ranch. Second, Rafe is going to look after his friend's widow (Virginia Madsen, Sideways). However, an evil banker (Mark Harmon, Chicago Hope) also has his eyes on the ranch…and on the widow. Rafe scoffs at this well-dressed crook, until he realizes that the banker is willing to go to psychotic extremes to get what he wants. He's a tough villain, but Rafe Covington is a man knows how to put up a fight. It's going to be quite a showdown in Crossfire Trail!
In Last Stand at Saber River, Selleck plays Paul Cable, a confederate veteran who is just coming home from the war. It's obvious that the Civil War is almost over; Lee seems on the brink of surrender. However, it's not over quite yet, and some Union officers (David Carridine, Kill Bill and Keith Carradine, Nashville) are determined to keep Cable from reclaiming his homestead. Cable stubbornly refuses to give in to the Union officers, but also resists pressure from a renegade arms dealer who wants him to take a violent approach to resolving the situation.
Finally, Selleck plays the title character in Monte Walsh, a remake of the 1970 film starring Lee Marvin. Monte is an old-fashioned cowboy who is living in the final days of the west. Real cowboys can't seem to find much work anymore; those who do often find themselves stuck in silly Wild West novelty shows. Monte isn't interested in any of that. He's not going to change one bit, no matter how much the world around him does. Will he be able to survive this brand new world of progress and technology?
The Tom Selleck Western Collection comes as part of an unexplained flood of westerns that are being released/re-released on DVD at the moment. With so many new options out there, do these rank high enough to be included on a list of recommendations? Well, I'd say you could do better, but you could also certainly do worse. The title more or less says enough, doesn't it? When you watch a Tom Selleck western, you pretty much know what you're going to get. Sure, things may shift a bit, but it's still a Tom Selleck western. Like John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Sam Elliot, and Clint Eastwood, Selleck has developed his own patented style of playing western characters, and it's a style strong enough to keep fans coming back for more of the same.
The three westerns presented here were all made for television, and were broadcast on TNT between 1997-2002. Each film feels very much like a made-for-television production, but the western has often fared better than other genres on the small screen. I have no idea why that is. Maybe a lot of decent westerns go to television because theatres aren't too keen on offering them anymore. Either way, these are perfectly respectable efforts that should please fans of Selleck and the western genre.
My favorite of the bunch was Crossfire Trail, which is ironically the least ambitious film of the set. It's based on a novel by famed western author Louis L'Amour, and the film manages to capture the feelings that one gets while reading a L'Amour novel. That is to say it is lightweight, accessible, entertaining, and above all, simply engrossing. The film is destined to climax in a big shootout, but along the way, it is only interested in providing colorful characters, smart dialogue, and lots of curiously absorbing little scenes.
The performances are able to carry the movie through spots that would probably seem a bit dull otherwise. Selleck gives a rock-solid performance in each of these films, but this is probably my favorite. It's the performance where he says the least, and conveys the most. He is joined by the incomparable Wilford Brimley (The Firm), who is always a pleasure to watch. Virginia Madsen gives a lovely performance as the skeptical widow Selleck has vowed to protect, and there are also some nice bits from David O'Hara (The Departed), Barry Corbin (Northern Exposure), Marshall Teague (The Rock), and William Sanderson (Deadwood). Particularly surprising is the performance of Mark Harmon as the villainous Banker. At first, Harmon simply seems to be your standard issue slick-n-dull rich villain, but then his character reveals almost amusingly horrible levels of evil. By the film's final act, Harmon has turned into (I kid you not) something that resembles a demented Tom Cruise. It's probably a bad performance, but crazy enough to trick me into thinking it was quite a good one.
Crossfire Trail was directed by the generally reliable Simon Wincer, who has been striving for two decades to recapture the success of his masterpiece, Lonesome Dove. Alas, he has never quite done it, but he has continued to offer up a series of reasonably engaging westerns. He is also the director of the Monte Walsh remake, which is pleasant if a bit overlong. Unlike Crossfire Trail, which feels like a western from the era when westerns were westerns (you know what I mean), Monte Walsh is very much in the tradition of westerns from the 1960s and 1970s, when every western that came out was a swan song for the dying west.
Once again, the film offers plenty of small pleasures thanks to the performances and little moments. William Sanderson, Marshall Teague, and Barry Corbin are back, again in fine form. This time they're joined by the likes of William Devane (Space Cowboys), Keith Carradine, Robert Carradine (Lizzie McGuire), James Gammon (The Hi-Lo Country), and John Michael Higgins (Fred Claus). All of these actors are able to provide their own brand of delightful flavor to the film, and Isabella Rosselini is just splendid as the prostitute with whom Monte is in love. If you've seen the wonderful original film, you may be disappointed by this effort, which is easily inferior. However, on its own terms, Monte Walsh is a nice film.
Both of these films are beautifully photographed and feature solid scores by Edward Colvin. The widescreen transfers here are quite solid, offering a very vibrant and surprisingly cinematic look at the old west. Sound is excellent as well on both films, particularly on Monte Walsh, which boasts fairly immersive sound design. However, the same cannot be said for the third film in the collection.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Last Stand at Saber River is at a disadvantage to begin with, because it frankly looks pretty crummy. The full-frame transfer is often faded, scratched, and messy. The film just looks bad for the most part, not one bit better than it would look if you were watching it on television. The disc has no extras of any kind, but that is the case with all of these films. Sound on Last Stand at Saber River is okay, highlighted by a strong score from David Shire.
However, Last Stand at Saber River is also the weakest film of the set. Unlike Wincer's films (this one was directed by Dick Lowry), the emphasis is on plot rather than character. None of the plots in this set is particularly strong, but by making the story the center of attention, Last Stand at Saber River is the only film that really makes that issue a problem. The film rather annoyingly uses a topic as complex as the Civil War as nothing more than a catalyst for a rather limp and P.C. ending (spoiler alert: the ex-confederate and the ex-union guys team up to defeat the really bitter confederate who refuses to accept that the war is over).
Performances in this film aren't as interesting as those in the other two films. The only acting of real note comes from David and Keith Carradine, who are both quite good here. Well, there's also a young Haley Joel Osmont (The Sixth Sense), playing an amusingly impetuous little brat.
The film was based on a story by Elmore Leonard, and perhaps that explains it. Why is it so difficult to make Leonard's work translate to the big screen (or in this case, small screen)? According to IMDb, there have been 39 films based on his work. Of those, only Get Shorty, Out of Sight, Jackie Brown, and 3:10 to Yuma have been really noteworth. Whatever the reason, Last Stand at Saber River is just another in a lengthy series of failed Leonard adaptations.
While one weak film and a complete lack of extras is a liability for this collection, the retail price of twenty bucks goes a long way toward eliminating that problem. Crossfire Trail and the Monte Walsh remake are modest, satisfying genre efforts that will please those who enjoy a good old-fashioned western. If for no one else, this set is a must-have for Grandpa Simpson, who will love the scene in Monte Walsh where the stubborn cowboy and his horse jump over that confounded villain in his new-fangled car that is stuck in the mud.
If you think I'm going to do anything to make Tom Selleck angry with me,
you're either overestimating me or underestimating Tom Selleck. Who knows how
many helpless judges he's got stashed away inside that mustache? Not guilty.
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