You want a reliable recipe on how to cook an excellent Western? Well, if you start out with a director like Walter Hill (The Long Riders, Geronimo, Wild Bill, Deadwood) and a lead actor like Robert Duvall (Lonesome Dove, Open Range) -- there's very little you can do to screw up the meal. Toss in an excellent co-star performance from recent Oscar nominee Thomas Haden Church (Sideways), and now you're really starting off on the right foot.
The very first movie to be made directly for the AMC movie channel, Walter Hill's Broken Trail is all sorts of fantastic. The story opens with a tentative bargain struck between Prentice Ritter (Duvall) and his estranged nephew Tom Harte (Church). Together the pair will corral three hundred horses across the unforgiving 1897 terrain between Oregon and Wyoming ... only to come across a despicable slave trader and his five charges: young Asian women on their way to a short and painful life inside of a mining town brothel. Suffice to say that the five young women (and a few colorful tag-alongs) quickly end up under the protection of Ritter & Harte -- and this unlikely collection of cohorts runs into every sort of roadblock you'd expect. And even a few you wouldn't.
Bias might enter into the equation here, since I consider Robert Duvall one of my very favorite actors -- but I challenge any fan of the Western genre to sit down with the meaty 3-hour running time of Broken Trail, and come out the other side less than impressed with what Hill and Company have cooked up here. If the narrative chooses to ramble and wander just a bit here and there, you can dismiss those spots as "padding" if you like, but I happen to enjoy a movie that has a few character-based sequences that it doesn't necessarily need to have. Fans of the genre who are looking for a "horseback road-trip adventure tale" will have their appetites satisfied, but those who like their Westerns a little more on the warm, wistful, and poignant side will find a new favorite to add to their collection.
I know what you're thinking: that Broken Trail is nothing more than a mini-series, which means that there's a definite ceiling on the level of quality. I thought the same thing, without even looking back to realize that Robert Duvall once did a mini-series called Lonesome Dove -- and that film's better than 90% of what's found in your local multiplex. And to those who might grouse at the three-hour running time, all I can say is this: I could have sat through another hour of Broken Trail without moving a muscle.
The story is simple enough, but Hill and screenwriter Alan Geoffrion are sure to add a lot of smart and subtle touches that simply are not found in your standard Western. To begin with, the central characters are a bunch of young Asian women who don't speak a word of English. Bound in transit by a devious bastard (played by the excellent James Russo), the Chinese girls fall under the protection of a true rarity: a noble man in 1897's American West. It doesn't take long before the slave traders go searching for their "property," which gives us the essential conflict -- but Broken Trail is not an action film. There's some solid gun-play, to be sure, but Hill & Duvall seem a lot more interested in the character of the piece. Most of the film's best moments (and there are several) come in the form of simple conversation.
Broken Trail is a warm-hearted and gorgeous-looking piece of big-time Western-style filmmaking, but don't mistake it for a cuddly piece of fluff. The lead villain (played flawlessly by Chris Mulkey) is a ruthless bastard, and Walter Hill certainly isn't shy about doling out some harsh violence when it best serves the story. Although the movie doesn't mind slowing down and allowing its actors to breathe, the second half of the film comes with a dark and ominous cloud that's forever threatening to break the peace. And the ending is as casually bittersweet as it is gloriously free of sappy sentimentalism.
In a recent interview, Robert Duvall called Broken Trail the end of a trilogy that began with Lonesome Dove and Kevin Costner's Open Range. To say the brilliant old actor is three-for-three in the Western department would be a stunning example of understatement; the guy also appeared in True Grit, Lawman, and Joe Kidd, fine Westerns all.
Video: The 3-hour film is presented in a very crisp and handsome anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) transfer. Hats off to AMC for hiring a guy like Walter Hill to helm this project.
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 sound, which is also quite strong throughout. Optional English subtitles are included.
Extras: The only extra is a 23-minute featurette entitled The Making of a Legendary Western, which seems a little arrogant of a label, even if the film is really quite excellent. It's a well-made and generally informative piece on various facets of the project. Interview subjects include Robert Duvall, Walter Hill, Thomas Haden Church, Great Scacchi, screenwriter Alan Geoffrion, producer Damian Ganczewski, costume designer Wendy Partridge, production designer Ken Rempel, cinematographer Lloyd Ahern, 2nd Unit Director Allan Graf, Horse Wrangler Dusty Bews, Stunt Coordinator Guy Bews, and actors Scott Cooper, Olivia Cheng, Rusty Schwimmer, Chris Mulkey, Kristianna Wong, and Gwendoline Yeo.
There's also a 2-minute preview for AMC's Hustle.
I don't care if the thing was originally made for cable, theatrical, network, or Quicktime. This is one of the very best films I've seen all year. Duvall's clearly having one last hurrah on horseback, Walter Hill does some of his very best work in years, and Tom Church makes a very strong case for his place in the genre. Guy makes for a seriously solid cowboy.