Monday, July 25, 2011

The Long Riders Blu-ray Review

Jesse James and his gang of outlaws ride again with a clever gimmick.  Four sets of acclaimed actor brothers David, Keith and Robert Carradine, James and Stacy Keach, Dennis and Randy Quaid, and Christopher and Nicholas Guest each depict real-life siblings in emotionally charged portrayals of the Old West’s legendary bandits.  The notorious James-Younger gang is the most famous group of outlaws in the country, robbing banks, trains and stagecoaches with a sense of daring that makes them folk heroes throughout the land.  But when the mighty Pinkerton detective agency swears to track them down, these criminals must face an awesome enemy that will stop at nothing to see them behind bars…or dead!  Only through the strength of their loyalty and blood ties can the outlaws hope to survive the brutal pursuits, unexpected betrayals and blistering showdowns that mark the end of their dangerous ride.

Film (3 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

The Long Riders could have been a classic.  It had everything going for it – a fantastic cast (with one exception) that despite being cast due to the brother gimmick actually made this better than it would have been, it was helmed by a legendary director, and it had a built in audience that was looking forward to seeing more exploits of Jesse James and his gang.  I’m not not even sure who’s to blame for the film’s shortcomings since there are several culprits to share the blame.  The first reason it didn’t live up to its potential is the screenplay (which involved the Keach brothers), since there’s so much exposition used to cover missing information that we should have been shown.  The movie jumps around in time with no real effort to inform the viewer.
Situations and character’s outlooks change for no reason other than the script was intent on hitting the major events like a checklist. The second reason is the fact that James Keach was a terrible choice to play Jesse James.  He barely even gives a performance instead of just going through the motions like a robot.  There is no way anyone would follow this emotionless zombie as a leader.  The final reason is the director Walter Hill himself who was responsible for allowing the previous two reasons happen.  Not only did he let that draft of the script be filmed, he also most likely approved of the casting of James Keach and guided his performance as well.  On the plus side, he can also accept the credit for what did work – which was a lot.
As the movie begins, the James-Younger gang are robbing a bank in what was supposed to be a non-violent robbery.  Unfortunately, the twitchy Ed Miller (Dennis Quaid) loses his temper and kills some people and gets Jesse James (James Keach) shot in the process.  Although the outlaws escape, that was the final straw for Jesse and he banishes Ed (and one of the better actors) from his gang.  Ed is such a loser than even his own brother Clell (Randy Quaid) sides with Jesse.  The remaining outlaws are like Jesse, former soldiers of the Confederate army and they are still pissed about losing the war.  They make a point to rob any Unionists they can when the opportunity arises and threaten to shoot any musician that plays songs glorifying the North.  While Jesse is the brains of the outfit, his brother Frank (Stacy Keach) is the muscle to back him up.  They are aided by the Younger brothers which includes Cole (David Carradine), Jim, (Keith Carradine), and Bob (Robert Carradine).  The gang is so successful at robbing banks and trains that the Pinkerton Detective Agency is hired to track them down and a huge reward is offered for their capture.
The movie takes great pains to take the time to show us each of the character’s lives but it doesn’t really amount to much, since there’s so many of them to cover that we are only able to scratch surface.  The cost of that devoting that much time to each character is that the movie has an overall morose pace that is only livened up when the action kick back into gear or anytime that David Carradine is on the screen.  There’s no doubt that he is the real star of the movie and his effortless charisma improves every scene he’s in and you miss him when he isn’t there.  He also has great chemistry with Pamela Reed who as Belle Starr is his sometime prostitute/love interest.  The rest of the cast is also good in their roles and by the time the gang attempts to rob the First National Bank of Northfield, you already have an idea of what’s going to happen and you kind of feel bad for them just based on the talents of the performers.   That final robbery is the highlight of the film and it almost redeems the flaws of the movie alone.  It’s a wonderfully shot action sequence with some fantastic editing and with enough blood and violence that it could be a love letter to Hill’s mentor Sam Peckinpah.

Video (3 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

The film’s 1080p (1.85:1) transfer is a mixed bag.  First off, there’s a lot of specks and damage visible throughout the movie.  While this lack of restoration is unfortunate, it also has the mixed blessing of not being tampered with which we’ve all seen before.  Some shots looks super sharp while other are soft and fuzzy which is most likely due to the film used at the time.  This wasn’t a high budget film by any means, so this should be somewhat expected.  Colors are decent but flesh tones are inconsistent.  Black levels aren’t very deep and are fairly unsatisfying but the contrast is surprisingly good.  This is most likely the best this movie is ever going to look unless someone approves an expensive restoration on it.  It does look better than the previous DVD so if you want to upgrade or haven’t bought this yet, it is an improvement.

Audio (3 out of 5 stars) 

The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track is also uneven in its quality.  This is one of those movies that you have keep one hand on the remote for as the sound levels vary constantly which is really annoying.  The dialogue, while clear is extremely low while the gunshots and the rest of the action is very loud which makes you raise and lower the volume throughout the movie.  I’m not sure if a full blown 5.1 mix would have made any difference of this was the result of Walter Hill’s preference but I disagree with it.

Special Features (1 out of 5 stars) 

The only extra is the film’s theatrical trailer in high definition which unfortunately will bring down the final score.

Final Thoughts (3 out of 5 stars) 

The film has many good elements including the cast and action, but at the same time is a disappointment considering all of the talent in front of and behind the camera.  This could have been a classic if more time had been spent on the script and someone else cast in the lead role.  On a more positive note, David Carradine’s performance is reason enough to see the movie as is the final robbery sequence.  All in all, this was a good movie but it could have been so much better.
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