It's an iconic image of cinema history: Butch and Sundance, bursting from that Bolivian church, guns blazing, forever captured in sepia-toned freeze-frame. "Outlaw Trail: The Treasure of Butch Cassidy" toys with our fond memories of that scene, opening with its own take on that legendary moment. This time, the duo plan an escape out the back. But did they make it?
Roy Parker sure thinks they did. We flash forward to 1951 Utah, where teenage Roy (Ryan Kelley), great-nephew to LeRoy Parker, aka Butch Cassidy, is convinced that his famous relative made it out alive, returned to the States, took an assumed name, and made up for a life of crime by living out his final years doing good deeds for all around him.
It's not a popular view. Roy's hometown seems content to use its most famous former citizen as an excuse for an annual old west festival, while the curator of the nearby museum (Bruce McGill) spins yarns reminding local boys that Cassidy was a ruthless outlaw.
Ah, but that curator turns out to be a rascally villain, in cahoots with two lowlife thieves (Brian Peck and Ron Melendez), all out to find Butch Cassidy's stash of Bolivian gold. And suddenly we're smack dab in the middle of a ripping boy's adventure, with Roy and friends racing against the bad guys in a search to find that hidden treasure.
It all sounds like a low-rent Disney caper from days gone by, what with the bumbling crooks and the heroic teens. But director Ryan Little ("Saints and Soldiers") and rookie writer David Pliler make so much of the action and the drama and the characters that the whole thing rises above its genre, capturing a grandness rarely found in movies of this scale. This is an oversized story with oversized moments, and what magical thrills the filmmakers find along the way.
In one scene, our young hero jumps onto a speeding train. In another, he engages in a back road car chase. An early scene features a breakneck horse race. There is humor, too: a potential escape down river is foiled when the plucky sidekick (Dan Byrd) forgets to grab the oars. And romance: Roy pines for the lovely Ellie (Arielle Kebbel), girlfriend to spoiled rich kid Martin (Brent Weber). And drama: Roy's grandfather (James Gammon) surely knows of his brother's ultimate fate, but is refusing to tell.
It's all presented with a light touch, with Little obviously having a blast with the material. Working with a brilliant young cast (all four stars shine on their own and as a unit), Little's deft pacing, balancing all the story elements with grace and skill, keeps us wowing to these characters' adventures. Never mind the not-so-occasional dip into cliché - Little welcomes such familiar notions, going so far as to put McGill in a black hat. Here, Little celebrates the formula instead of letting the formula dictate the action. As a result, we're given wide-eyed adventure that smiles with us.
The film also works wonders because underneath all the gee-whiz thrills of the adventure is a steady supply of heart. For all his train jumping and car chasing, Roy's just a guy who wants to know the truth about his family, and Pliler's screenplay (not to mention Kelley's rich performance) makes this the focus of the piece, keeping character first. There's a charming, folksy pleasantness to Roy's derring-do, and it's all because of his earnest nature.
(Pliler also proves to be a smash at crafting memorable dialogue. His characters speak with a rhythm that's lovely on the ears, even when the lines are all about simplistic plot devices, while the movie is also peppered with a handful of big-laugh one-liners that add to the fun of it all.)
"Outlaw Trail" is undoubtedly old-fashioned, but that's always in a good way. It's a rollicking good time adventure that never shows its low budget roots. Little has given us a fast paced, highly intelligent, endlessly enjoyable matinee joyride, complete with retro feel.
Video & Audio
The image quality of "Outlaw Trail" is possibly the biggest surprise of all. Presented here in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, the film is stunningly clear and bright; minor amounts of grain pop up for a scene or two, but it's hardly noticeable. What is noticeable is drop dead gorgeous photography (from cinematographers T.C. Christensen and Geno Salvatori) that showcases lush Utah landscapes. As the colors pop and the detail crackles, we forget that we're watching a low budget effort. Little (a former cinematographer himself) knows how to use visuals to beef up production values. Seeing such a rich transfer come from a smallish production house like Allumination only adds to the surprise.
The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack is less impressive, although it certainly gets the job done quite well. Again, a solid sound mix hides the low budget to great effect. Optional Spanish subtitles are provided.
The commentary track is packed with participants: Little, Kelley, Byrd, Peck, Melendez, Weber, and (via phone) Kebbel. I'm a sucker for these full-cast tracks, as the vibe is always looser, and there's never a shortage of conversation. This one mixes making-of info with fond, jokey reminisces, and it's plenty fun.
A behind-the-scenes featurette (5:03), made up entirely of footage taken on set, lets the cast and crew do the talking, and while it's not as informative as one would have liked, it's light and breezy enough to make for a nice once-over.
A blooper reel (2:35) is typical outtake silliness, again showing a fun side to the filming.
Finally, a spoiler-heavy trailer (2:38) is included, as are previews for "Walking Across Egypt" and "Time of the Wolf." (These previews look like they haven't been touched since the movies debuted on VHS years ago.)
I'm weary of calling "Outlaw Trail" terrific family entertainment, as the label may put off some. But it's also quite accurate. This is delightfully old-fashioned adventure bound to thrill young viewers while engaging their parents with great ease. Highly Recommended.