Judge Chris Claro terrorized his old neighborhood on his tricycle, when riding with the Spokes Gang.
"Submit to your fate with Christian resignation and live bravely to your appointed time!"
Sure, the Western's time as a staple of film and television is long past, but its charms are eternal. Full of icons and signifiers, the genre has transcended cliché and graduated to the level of myth and legend. As such, it's more reassuring than challenging, more comfort food than haute cuisine.
The Spikes Gang, directed by Richard Fleischer (Soylent Green) came along at the tail end of the Western's reign, in 1974, two years after Mark Rydell explored similar territory when he put John Wayne on the trail with The Cowboys. The film tells the story of one Harry Spikes (Lee Marvin, Cat Ballou), an ornery cuss of an outlaw left for dead and nursed back to health by three teenagers. When Spikes recovers and departs, the boys, played by Ron Howard (Happy Days), Gary Grimes (Summer of '42), and Charles Martin Smith (American Graffiti), follow his lead, setting off on their own.
After the boys botch a robbery and are thrown in a Mexican jail, Spikes repays their kindness by taking them on as his gang. Naturally, there's no honor among thieves, and before long the three naifs are in way over their heads.
Marvin, not surprisingly, is a pip as Spikes, chewing on the character like a plug of tobacco. With his handlebar mustache and basso growl, the actor has a busman's holiday as the outlaw who mentors the young 'uns in the ways of robbery.
As the trio of adventure-seekers, Howard, Grimes, and Smith are appropriately callow. What they aren't is particularly compelling. Now that he's one of Hollywood's most sought-after directors, it's hard to remember that Howard wasn't winning any awards for his acting. Passive and wooden, it's nice to see how successful he's become behind the camera. Grimes does a variation on the young innocent that brought him to prominence in Summer of '42 as the youngster ushered into manhood by Jennifer O'Neill. His wide-eyed hesitancy is a perfect foil for Marvin's grizzled weariness. Martin's nearsighted, miniature Tod offers a witty physical counterpoint to the outsized Marvin.
Fleischer, a journeyman director with a wackily eclectic filmography that included Tora! Tora! Tora!, Mandingo, Red Sonja and the Neil Diamond iteration of The Jazz Singer, keeps The Spikes Gang humming with a brisk economy, aided immeasurably by a traditional yet unique score by composer Fred Karlin. All the expected set pieces—bank robberies, posse chases, shootouts—are as effective as they are expected.
Visually, The Spikes Gang is better than expected. Colors are rich and detailed, with virtually no pixelation. The Dolby 2.0 audio is fine. With no subtitles, no scene selection, and no extras, save a trailer, the Olive Films DVD is a bare-bones release.
Rewarding, if not risky, The Spikes Gang is a charming reminder of both the traditions of the Western and the enduring humor and charisma of Lee Marvin.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Olive Films
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